Low Carb or Low Fat? Treadmill or Elliptical? Surprising Answers to 8 Contentious Health Debates

Experts weigh in with the final word on the best choices for your health.

december january 2016 health debates sugarRalph Smith for Reader's Digest

1. What’s healthier in your coffee—sugar or artificial sweeteners?

Winner: Sugar.

Go ahead and opt for the real stuff. Not because artificial sweeteners aren’t safe (they are, confirms the FDA), but the premise that we should eat “real foods” in moderation is persuasive. Whereas your body knows how to deal with sugar (i.e., you burn it for energy and, if you eat too much of it, store the rest as fat), emerging animal research suggests that, on the other hand, a habit of artificial sweeteners may interfere with metabolism and blood sugar regulation, possibly even contributing to weight gain and glucose intolerance. (One possible exception: People with diabetes, who must closely monitor their blood sugar levels, should talk to their doctor about the healthiest choices for them.)

But more important than how you sweeten your java is your overall intake of sugar or artificial sweeteners, says Elisa Zied, RDN, a former spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the author of Younger Next Week.

The World Health Organization says adults should limit sugar intake to about six teaspoons total each day (one can of soda can have about ten teaspoons). While FDA recommended limits for sweeteners vary, Zied advises using no more than a couple of packets a day.

2. Which provides a superior workout—treadmill or elliptical?

Winner: Treadmill.

You can raise your heart rate and burn calories on any piece of cardio equipment, but every time your foot comes down on that treadmill belt, you get the bonus of building bone strength too, says Jessica Matthews, senior adviser for health and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise. Unlike the elliptical, only weight-bearing exercises—such as walking, jogging, jumping rope, and weight training—help to preserve bone density.

Most exercisers also simply like the treadmill more than the elliptical, found a recent study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, which is a helpful factor if they’re trying to stick to an exercise program. That said, folks with arthritis or who are overweight may find the lower-impact elliptical to be more comfortable for their joints, says Matthews.

3. Which diet is more effective for weight loss—low fat or low carb?

Winner: Low carb.

Researchers have been bickering over this diet dilemma for decades, but last year, a randomized study funded by the National Institutes of Health firmly tipped the scales in favor of low-carbohydrate diets.

At the end of 12 months, low-carb eaters lost more weight than did low-fat dieters (about eight pounds more). But a low-carb diet doesn’t mean no carb, points out Melina Jampolis, MD, president of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists.

Low carbers in the NIH study, for example, took in about 30 percent of their calories from carbohydrates—about 110 grams of carbs a day for a 1,500-calorie diet. That equates roughly to a cup of oatmeal with half a cup of blueberries and a teaspoon of brown sugar, a small apple, a cup of low-fat Greek yogurt with half a cup of high-fiber cereal, and one piece of whole wheat bread, as well as a lot of veggies and protein. Plenty of wiggle room for pasta lovers.

december january 2016 health debates exerciseRalph Smith for Reader's Digest

4. Which is better when you’re tired—exercise or an extra hour of sleep?

Winner: Exercise.

Both sleep and exercise are essential to your health, but tacking on an extra hour after a full night’s sleep is not going to be as beneficial as a morning sweat session.

A single workout can reduce depressive symptoms and lower blood pressure for hours, even in people without hypertension, studies have found. What’s more, workouts can be energizing. A 2006 review of studies by scientists at the University of Georgia found a strong link between physical activity and a reduction in fatigue. Randomized-controlled experiments done by the same researchers in 2008 and 2010 confirmed: Working out doesn’t zap energy—it builds it.

5. Which is the better germ fighter—soap or hand sanitizer?

Winner: Soap.

While soap doesn’t kill microbes, as the alcohol in some sanitizers can, washing with suds and water makes for cleaner hands, according to the infectious-disease experts at the CDC. Multiple studies have found that the combo of running water, lathering with soap, and friction from rubbing hands for 20 seconds removes the highest number of certain sickness-causing bacteria and viruses. No need to use warm or hot water—it doesn’t seem to help clear any more germs than cool water does and may actually dry out your hands more. When you can’t get to soap and water, a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is a decent second choice, says the CDC.

6. Which is healthier for your feet—wedge heels or ballet flats?

Winner: Wedge heels.

Both allow for even distribution of your body weight, since there’s ample contact between the sole of the shoe and the floor (versus, say, stiletto heels). But more support can put wedges on top, says Michele Summers Colon, DPM, a podiatrist and shoe designer in El Monte, California. “Very flat flats are the worst shoes you can wear,” says Summers Colon. “There is no support for the mid-foot, so the ankle tends to roll inward, causing ankle, calf, and even knee soreness.”

7. Which toothbrush works better—electric or manual?
Winner: Electric.

Studies have seesawed, but finally a Cochrane review of 56 studies confirmed in 2014 that powered brushes remove 11 to 21 percent more plaque than do manual ones and reduce other symptoms of gum disease better. Another helpful feature of many electric brushes? The timer. “Patients often don’t realize how little time they spend cleaning their teeth,” says Ricardo Vidal Gonzalez, DDS, of the Mayo Clinic. “Most dentists agree that proper brushing takes at least two minutes and recommend that to their patients, but many people brush less than a minute.”

Good brushing is one of the most critical ways to promote not only good oral health but systemic health as well, Dr. Gonzalez adds. “An infection in the mouth can negatively affect the cardiovascular system, diabetic patients, and the health of pregnant women.”

While most generally healthy people can keep their mouths in shape by brushing with a regular toothbrush twice a day, he says, those with gum disease or issues like arthritis, which can make regular brushing tough, will probably get more benefit from an electric.

8. Which is preferable for good digestion—yogurt or a probiotic supplement?

Winner: Yogurt and other fermented foods.

“Food is always the best way to get your nutrients,” says Gerard Mullin, MD, director of Integrative GI Nutrition Services at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and author of The Gut Balance Revolution. The synergistic effects of all the components in whole foods can’t be duplicated in a supplement. When you’re shopping for probiotic-containing foods such as kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and kombucha, look for live and active cultures on labels. If you can’t stand the taste of foods that contain probiotics, ask your doctor to recommend a high-quality supplement, says Dr. Mullin.

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