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Old Wives' Tales: True or False?

Given their unflagging popularity, you have very likely heard of or applied a few old wives' tales to matters of health, perhaps without checking to see if the advice was true or false. Based on two articles published in Reader's Digest,1,2 I am highlighting eight tales that dispense some type of medical advice. Separating fact from fiction with respect to these timeless tales is just one more way you can take control of your health.

No. 1: An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Somewhat true. Although you'll want to keep a close eye on your total daily fructose intake, and most certainly avoid an all-fruit diet, eating whole fruit like apples can be beneficial to your health. While there is no guarantee eating an apple a day will eliminate your need to see a doctor occasionally, a study published in the journal Nature suggests apples are good for you for the following reasons: 3,4,5

Great source of antioxidants: Researchers from Cornell's Food Science and Toxicology Department in Ithaca, New York, found the antioxidant properties of 100 grams (g) of fresh apple to be equal to 1,500 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C

High in fiber: One medium apple boasts about 4.4 g of fiber; fiber-rich diets promote good digestion and help you maintain a healthy weight

Natural cancer fighter: When treating cancer cells with 50 mg of apple-skin extracts, the Cornell scientists noted a 43 percent decrease in the growth of colon cancer cells and a 57 percent reduction in liver cancer cell growth

The Cornell researchers suggest the bulk of an apple's antioxidant and anticancer properties result from the phytochemicals, such as flavanoids and polyphenols, mainly found in its skin. Toward that end, you'll want to eat the skin, which makes choosing organic apples important; apples are one of the most pesticide-contaminated fruits.

While the results of the Cornell study appear to be sound, it's important to note the research was funded, in part, by the New York State Apple Research Development Program and the New York Apple Association, groups with a clear interest to promote any alleged health benefits of apples.

Underscoring the nutritional value of apples, while making a strong distinction between the value of whole apples and apple juice, registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said:6

"There is good data to show the soluble fiber in apples can help prevent cholesterol from building up on artery walls. Apples contain a good amount of potassium, which can be beneficial for those who are watching their blood pressure. I strongly suggest you eat the whole apple. Juice does not have the fiber a whole apple does, and a good part of the beneficial nutrients are in the skin. Apple juice is not equal to a real apple."

No. 2: Chicken Soup Will Cure Your Cold

Somewhat true. Since there is no cure for the common cold and the biological basis for chicken soup's effects has never been fully realized, some believe its benefits are primarily psychosomatic. Colds, because they involve a virus, must run their course, and they do so based on the health of your immune system. That said, while chicken soup may not cure your cold, it can help soothe some of the unpleasant side effects.

In a study published in the journal Chest,7 a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, discovered both homemade and canned chicken soup possess anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce cold-related side effects like congestion. About the outcomes, they said:

"The present study … suggests chicken soup may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity. A mild anti-inflammatory effect could be one mechanism by which the soup could result in the mitigation of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections."

In lieu of canned varieties, try one of my favorite recipes for homemade bone broth — a soup that will nourish you from the inside out. The next time you prepare a pot of this delicious chicken soup, make a larger batch and freeze the leftovers. In doing so, you will always have some on hand when it's needed, especially during cold and flu season.

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