Worst Things For Your Health—According to Doctors
You're about to read the ultimate list of the Worst Things for Your Health. The "best" part about this "worst" list? Nearly everything on it is preventable—and Eat This, Not That! Health tells you how.
The Problem: Coronavirus
"People with COVID-19 have had a wide range of symptoms reported—ranging from mild symptoms to severe illness," reports the CDC. "Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. People with these symptoms may have COVID-19:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
This list does not include all possible symptoms."
Although there is no cure for coronavirus, you can help stop the spread of transmission. Wash your hands frequently, avoid crowds, wear a face mask, use extreme caution indoors around people you're not sheltering with, monitor your health and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.
The Problem: Obesity
There's one thing most of the worst things for your health have in common: being obese doesn't help. "From cancer to diabetes to heart disease, obesity increases the risk and severity of these medical conditions," says John Magaña Morton, MD, a Yale Medicine obesity expert and division chief of bariatric and minimally invasive surgery. "When you add in that obesity decreases the effectiveness of medical treatment and raises the risk of complications during treatment, obesity is by far the most consequential health condition we have."
John Chuback, MD, Board-Certified General Surgeon and Cardiovascular Surgeon, has dealt with every single one of the ten leading causes of death for more than 25 years. "What is fascinating is that there is one major disease that is extremely common that is not on the list, and I believe it should be. That disease is called obesity," he tells Eat This, Not That! Health. "If you look at medical and surgical literature, you will find that obesity has been associated with every single one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States without exception."
In addition to diet and exercise, Chuback suggests that the patient goes for a full history and physical examination with his or her primary care provider. This should include having their weight measured, and a body mass index (BMI) calculated. "Make it your goal to get your BMI into the normal healthy range," Dr. Chuback urges. "If you find that you are overweight or obese, it's time to work on losing weight."
The Problem: Poor Diet
A recent study published in the journal Lancet found that poor diet was responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor—including smoking. Of all the doctors surveyed, nearly every single one of them brought up diet as one of the main risk factors for early death. While individual eating habits will be examined later on, keep in mind that diet isn't all about the foods you are eating, but those you aren't also.
Solution: Poor Diet
"Focus on eating more healthy food rather than focusing on what you can't eat. Many people limit their meat intake and focus on well-rounded diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. It's no secret that this kind of diet is protective against many forms of cancer and heart disease," says Dr. Shawn Vedamani, MD a Board Certified Physician in San Diego.
"I try to go meat free at least a couple of days a week, but perhaps more importantly, I focus on getting more plants into my diet overall. Some studies show that replacing meat with legumes three times a week can lower your chances of getting colon cancer by 30 to 50 percent. Simple things like eating more tomatoes can reduce both ovarian and prostate cancer risks. Instead of focusing on what I shouldn't eat, I try to focus on the many healthy things that I can eat as much as I want," advises Vedamani.
The Problem: Smoking
It's not a secret that smoking causes lung cancer, but many people don't realize that it is also a leading cause of heart disease. "The good news is that the benefits of quitting smoking start almost immediately, and those who are able to successfully quit can dramatically decrease their risk of heart attack and stroke," explains Dr. Ann Marie Navar, MD, Ph.D.
Dr. Navar points out that there are proven medications—like Wellbutrin and Chantix— that can improve people's chances of quitting smoking in addition to nicotine replacement therapy. "People who want to quit should talk to their doctors about these (safe) ways to quit smoking," she explains.
The Problem: Untreated Alcoholism and Drug Abuse
Alcoholism and drug abuse contribute to almost every leading cause of death. Sadly, most deaths that involve these substances are absolutely preventable. Not only are drugs and alcohol toxic for your body, people who abuse them are at a much higher risk of dying of suicide, overdose, in a car accident, or other forms of unintentional death, Paul L. Hokemeyer, JD, Ph.D., and author of Fragile Power points out.
Solution: Untreated Alcoholism and Drug Abuse
If you are struggling with a substance abuse problem, get help now. Check out one of the many support groups such as AA or NA, talk to a mental health professional, or check into a rehabilitation program.
The Problem: Untreated Depression
The number one cause of suicide is the illness of depression, points out Jemima Kankam, MD, Psychiatrist at MedStar Harbor Hospital in Baltimore. There are many roots of depressive illnesses, including genetic predisposition, recurrent health problems, and persistent stress.
Solution: Untreated Depression
These are all great ways to support better mental health:
- Knowing your family history
- Learning the symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Reducing stress levels
- Educating yourself about emotional health
- Seeking professional help if you notice persistent changes in mood, thinking, or physical habits
- Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise habits.
- Most importantly, however, Dr. Kankam urges telling someone if you have thoughts that you don't want to live, so they support you in getting professional help.
The Problem: Not Exercising
"Exercise is a no-brainer to maintain the health status of all aspects of the musculoskeletal system," explains Felice Gersh, MD, OB/GYN and founder/director of the Integrative Medical Group. Not only do many injuries occur because of poor muscle strength and weak bones (osteoporosis or osteopenia) regular exercise is a great way to keep obesity at bay.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination each week. Following these guidelines can contribute to overall health, and decrease the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
The Problem: Avoiding the Doctor
One of the easiest ways to become a statistic is by not going to the doctor. Many people are afraid to visit their physician, even when they are feeling symptoms because they are afraid of what they might learn. Regular visits with a medical health expert are crucial for prevention, maintenance, and treatment.
Solution: Avoiding the Doctor
"The sooner you can catch any health complication, the better your chances are of recovery. When something is amiss, make a doctor's appointment immediately," Dr. Marc Rabinowitz, founder of the Prevention First Healthcare in Bucks County, PA tells Eat This, Not That! Health. "You want to look into treating a condition as soon as possible. They are called warning signs for a reason. And when you meet with your doctor, be clear and honest about when your problem began, what makes it better or worse, how long has it been going on and what parts of your body are involved. Remember, a doctor's visit may only last 7–10 minutes so don't wait until the end of the visit to bring up what really brought you to the doctor in the first place," says Rabinowitz.
The Problem: Ignoring Risk Factors You Can't Feel
High cholesterol is one of the leading causes of heart disease and is totally treatable. But because you can't "feel" it, many people ignore it altogether. "The first step to getting your cholesterol in control is knowing your levels," explains cardiologist Dr. Navar. "All adults should know their levels of LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and VLDL cholesterol."
Solution: Ignoring Risk Factors You Can't Feel
Stay on top of your checkups and make sure you are getting your levels tested regularly. Just because you feel fine doesn't mean you are. Check these 15 Hidden Health Dangers You Can't Ignore to learn about some of the sneakiest conditions out there, from minor maladies to the serious stuff.
The Problem: Not Regularly Checking One's Blood Pressure By a Medical Professional
Another invisible risk factor of heart disease is high blood pressure. "Hypertension is the silent killer," explains cardiologist Steven Reisman, MD. High blood pressure can lead to a laundry list of complications, including aneurysm, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, metabolic syndrome, and even dementia.
Solution: Not Regularly Checking One's Blood Pressure By a Medical Professional
Dr. Reisman suggests checking your blood pressure at least once a year if it was normal at the last check. If you have a history of abnormal blood pressure, you should check it more frequently, per your doctor's advice.
The Problem: Not Wearing a Seatbelt or Bike Helmet
So many people refuse to swim in open water due to the fear of getting bitten by a shark. But consider this: in 2018 just five people in the entire world lost their lives due to a shark attack. However, according to the National Safety Council, over 40,000 die in car accidents every year in the United States alone. Nearly 800 more lose their lives on bikes. Keep in mind that many unintentional injuries are not unpreventable! According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nearly half of those killed were unrestrained. "Not wearing a seat belt or bike helmet is an easy way to die in an accident," points out Bethesda, MD Internist, Matthew Mintz, MD.
Solution: Not Wearing a Seatbelt or Bike Helmet
Buckle up! "Over four thousand lives could be saved each year if almost everyone in the U.S. wore seat belts," Dr. Mintz says. Never, ever ride a bike without protection. Using Uber or cab—is not an excuse to "forget" fasting a seatbelt. If you are riding a bike, make sure to wear a helmet—your chances of suffering a head injury will immediately be reduced by one half.
The Problem: Eating Too Much Sugar
Nearly every health expert we spoke to listed sugar as one of the worst culprits for your health. "The average American has 140 pounds of additional sugar added to their diet each year in food processing, which accounts for 18 percent of their diet," Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of The Complete Guide to Beating Sugar Addiction, explains. The excess sugar in our diet contributes to heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, and weight gain—meaning it contributes to the majority of leading causes of death in the country.
Solution: Eating Too Much Sugar
Since the average soda or fruit juice boasts ¾ teaspoon of sugar per ounce, Teitelbaum suggests switching to coffee, tea, vegetable juices, or V-8. You can also swap your candy for dark chocolate, which boasts a variety of health benefits. He points out that a recent study showed it to be associated with a 70% lower risk of depression, and a 45% lower risk of dying from heart disease—compared to 5 to 10% for cholesterol medications. "It helps energy and cognitive function, and chocolate is one of the best medicines in the world!" he says.
The Problem: Skipping Out On Your Medication
Your medications aren't helping you if they stay in your medicine cabinet. Skipping a day or two of medication may seem harmless, but it can seriously derail your health—especially when it comes to heart medications. "Unfortunately, many adults, even those who have had heart attacks, are inconsistent with their medication or stop it altogether," explains cardiologist Dr. Navar.
Solution: Skipping Out On Your Medication
Take your medication as instructed. Dr. Navar suggests using pillboxes to help keep track of multiple medications or checking to see if your pharmacy will dose-pack medications into easy to remember blister packs for free.
The Problem: Not Getting Enough Sleep
People like to say that "a lack of sleep never killed anyone," but that isn't really true. Slumber obviously makes us feel better, but lack of it can have a seriously negative impact on your health and increase your risk factors for many of the leading causes of death. Those who didn't get their seven hours were more likely to report being obese, physically inactive, and current smokers, more likely to report 10 chronic health conditions compared to those who got enough sleep. Lack of sleep can also contribute to unintentional injuries, such as car accidents, bike accidents, and sports injuries, as well as mental health problems.
Solution: Not Getting Enough Sleep
According to the CDC, adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for the best health and wellbeing. Getting a good night's sleep should be a priority, and taking certain steps can help. "Keep your bedroom dark and quiet, keep to a schedule, avoid stressful or violent movies and TV before bedtime and turn off your smartphone," suggests Stephen C Schimpff, MD MACP.
The Problem: Eating Saturated Fats
Consuming saturated fats are an easy way to destroy your heart health. "They increase bad cholesterol that builds up atherosclerotic plaques, blockages in your blood vessels," William Li, MD, author of Eat To Beat Disease explains. This sets you up for not only a heart attack and stroke, but also can even cause erectile dysfunction.
Eat This, Not That! Health
"Choose healthy polyunsaturated fats instead, like extra virgin olive oil, which do the exact opposite and help lower bad cholesterol," Dr. Li suggests.
The Problem: A Lack of Plant-Based Foods
Plant-based diets are everywhere these days and for a good reason. According to Dr. Bobby Price, Americans only eat 10 to 15 percent plant-based foods — and half of that is in the form of white potatoes as opposed to fruits and green leafy vegetables! There is sufficient scientific evidence showing that plant-based diets can help treat diabetes, obesity, reduce cholesterol, help with depression, and over well-being.
Solution: A Lack of Plant-Based Foods
Eat your veggies! "Getting your veggies in will drastically reduce your chances of heart disease," Price says. Instead of making your meat protein the biggest portion of your meal, put more emphasis on veggies—especially greens and other low-starch veggies.
The Problem: Not Practicing Safe Sex
According to the Food and Drug Administration, millions of people in the United States contract an STI each year — including HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and certain types of hepatitis. Proper condom use during sex dramatically decreases your chances of contraction. Unfortunately, condoms are not quite as effective in preventing HPV, responsible for approximately 31,500 cases of cancer each year, including almost all cases of cervical and anal cancer, about 75% of vaginal cancer, 70% of oropharyngeal cancer, and 69% of vulvar cancer.
Solution: Not Practicing Safe Sex
To keep yourself protected from STIs, always wear a condom unless both you and your partner have been tested. Also, be incredibly cautious of who you have intercourse with, and regularly get yourself checked for STDs.
The Problem: Not Drinking Enough Fluids
A significant number of people land in the hospital due to dehydration, and this can be deadly for people who suffer from kidney-related conditions. Dr. Price reveals that chronic dehydration strains your heart. "When the amount of blood circulating through your body decreases as a result of dehydration to compensate your heart beats faster and harder to maintain blood pressure also causes hypertension," he points out. Additionally, there are so many health benefits to drinking water. It helps regulate your body temperature, lubricate and cushion joints, protect your spinal cord and other sensitive tissues, and get rid of wastes through urination, perspiration, and bowel movements.
Solution: Not Drinking Enough Fluids
Drink your water! While there are a variety of factors (such as height, weight, age, exercise habits) that will influence how much water you need to stay hydrated, most experts recommend eight 8-ounce glasses—equivalent to about 2 liters, or half a gallon.
The Problem: Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Drinking too many alcoholic drinks per week has been linked to a bevy of health complications, including liver damage, heart disease, and breast cancer, points out Yvonne Ottaviano MD, Director of Breast Oncology, Medstar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore.
Solution: Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Drink in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.
The Problem: Drinking Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Sugar-sweetened beverages deserve their own category because they are one of the most deceptive methods when it comes to sugar intake. "Consuming them over time overwhelms your body's ability to metabolize glucose and sets up for type 2 diabetes and all of the downstream consequences, ranging from cardiovascular disease to obesity to cancer," Dr. Li explains. Even worse, are those containing artificial sweeteners, because they change our microbiome, the bacteria in our gut, by killing off good bacteria and allowing the bad to take over in our intestines. This can lead to intestinal inflammation, severe gut disturbances, and compromise of our immune system.
Solution: Drinking Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
Dr. Li suggests choosing naturally sweetened beverages, or drink tea, coffee with no added sugar. You can even make your own soft drink by adding a splash of real fruit juice to sparkling water—or try a fragrant unsweetened tea, like jasmine green tea— suggests Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook and nutrition advisor for Lunch Unpacked.
The Problem: Isolation
Isolating yourself can manifest itself in your health in a variety of ways. First of all, it can have a seriously negative impact on your mental health, contributing to depression and possibly suicide. Second, by surrounding yourself with others and maintaining an active social life, you will have people watching over you. If there is something wrong with your health, they might notice it before you do. "Human beings atrophy in isolation. However, many people, however, find engaging with other people either anxiety-provoking or exhausting," explains Dr. Hokemeyer.
To push through the resistance to engage socially, Dr. Hokemeyer suggests committing to at least three social engagements a week. They can be anything from spending an hour checking email at a coffee shop or attending a yoga class.
The Problem: Taking the Wrong Vitamins
Choosing the right vitamins shouldn't be a trial and error sort of process. According to Arielle Levitan MD, co-founder Vous Vitamin and author of The Vitamin Solution It can have a serious impact on your health. For example, some people take supplemental vitamin A when it isn't needed. "Most Americans are not deficient in Vitamin A," she points out.
Solution: Taking the Wrong Vitamins
Before you take any medication, supplements, or vitamins, you should always speak to your physician. Doctors can diagnose deficiencies through lab work or physical symptoms — and their medical opinion is much more likely to be accurate than your guesswork.
The Problem: Not Taking the Right Combination of Vitamins
See a pattern here? Vitamins are not to be taken lightly! "When people consume too much calcium without sufficient magnesium, not only will it create stress within the body but the excess calcium will not be utilized correctly and may become toxic because magnesium is essential for the absorption and metabolism of calcium," explains Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, and founder of RNA Reset. Too much calcium and too little magnesium can cause calcification of the arteries, leading to heart attack and cardiovascular disease.
Solution: Not Taking the Right Combination of Vitamins
Again, speak your physician before attempting to prescribe yourself a concoction of vitamins.
The Problem: Maintaining a Vitamin Deficiency
On the flip side, vitamin deficiencies also cause significant health problems, Dr. Levitan points out. For example, too little vitamin D has been linked to increased death risk from cardiovascular disease.
Solution: Maintaining a Vitamin Deficiency
The easy fix is taking the right doses and combination of vitamins based on individual needs. "Taking a vitamin survey to get a doctor-created custom vitamin is a great way to make sure you take the right medically sound vitamins," she suggests.
The Problem: Eschewing Evidence-Based Treatments For Unproven "Natural" Therapies
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA in the same way over-the-counter or prescription drugs are, so they don't have to prove their safety or their efficacy points out cardiologist Ann Marie Navar, MD, Ph.D. For example, millions of US adults take fish oil supplements promoted for "heart health," however, they don't actually reduce the risk of heart disease.
Also, many supplements have been shown to have dangerous impurities and contaminants. "On the other hand, prescription blood pressure and cholesterol lowering medications like statins are tightly regulated and all are backed by clinical trials proving their safety and efficacy to lower the risk of heart attack and stroke," she concludes.
Solution: Eschewing Evidence-Based Treatments For Unproven "Natural" Therapies
First of all, make sure to do your research. Are there any substantial medical studies backing up the "natural" treatment? If no, where are the health claims coming from? Additionally, make sure you talk to your physician before opting for any alternative medicine route.
The Problem: Eating Too Much Red Meat
Eating red meat has been linked to a greater risk for type 2 diabetes, which might be because of the heme iron in it. Recent studies saying red meat was actually OK were linked back to supporters of the product, so the new research is cloudy.
Solution: Eating Too Much Red Meat
Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN suggests considering plant-based burgers—"or be a "blenditarian" by making burgers with a combination of minced mushrooms and grass-fed ground beef."
The Problem: Eating Too Much Processed Meat
Like red meat, eating processed meat like bacon, hot dogs, bologna, and sausage has also been linked to a greater risk for type 2 diabetes, likely due to the nitrites and sodium present in it.
Solution: Eating Too Much Processed Meat
To avoid the health risk, Newgent suggests choosing "natural" deli meats without any added nitrates or nitrates and punching up your sandwiches with non-starchy veggies. "You can also branch out and enjoy more pulse-based deli-meat options in sandwiches, like hummus!" she adds.
The Problem: Being Sedentary
Even if you are exercising, avoid sitting at your desk or on the couch for too many hours at a time, urges Thanu Jey, MD, Clinic Director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic. "Sitting on a couch for hours on end, coupled with poor diet choices can really increase your risk of diabetes," Dr. Jey points out.
Solution: Being Sedentary
Get up and move! "Simple changes such as stretching or walking are easy ways to start your journey to better health," encourages Dr. Jey.
The Problem: Skipping Sunblock
According to the CDC, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. While only a fraction of those diagnoses will end in death, consider this: about 86 percent of melanomas—the most fatal type of cancer—can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.
Solution: Skipping Sunblock
According to research, regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent. Wear sunscreen every single day, even if the sun isn't shining! And don't forget to reapply.
The Problem: Not Getting a Flu Shot
According to the CDC, millions of people get the flu every year. For some, especially children and the elderly, it can be fatal. This makes it very important to stay proactive in keeping influenza and pneumonia at bay.
Solution: Not Getting a Flu Shot
"Get your flu and pneumonia shots," instructs Dr. Mintz. Essentially everyone should get a flu shot every year. And no, contrary to the rumors, the flu shot does not cause the flu. "Even if you don't get the flu, you should still get the flu shot," he adds. "That's like saying, I haven't had an accident so I am just not going to get car insurance." For those over the age of 65, he also recommends the pneumonia shot. "There are now two of them given a year apart."
The Problem: Poor Dental Care
Going to the dentist isn't just for aesthetics. Not taking care of your teeth can be seriously hazardous to your health. Gum disease and tooth loss can contribute to your risk of heart disease, points out Steven Reisman, MD.
Solution: Poor Dental Care
To keep your smile healthy, make your regular dental check-up appointments at least every six months. And don't forget to brush your teeth daily.
The Problem: Not Seeking Mental Support For Chronic Illness Or Physical Pain
Many people who suffer from chronic illness or physical pain try to tough it out on their own. However, Dr. Hokemeyer points out that depression stemming from it can increase the likelihood of suicide. "Being sick and suffering from pain depletes us. When our physical well being is compromised we feel vulnerable, flawed and alone," he explains.
Solution: Not Seeking Mental Support For Chronic Illness Or Physical Pain
To push back against these feelings Hokemeyer suggests connecting with something larger than ourselves. "Explore religions and spiritual paths that are of interest to you. Spend as much time as you can in nature. Pray and meditate. Draw, paint, get your hands dirty in the earth's soil," he says.
So how did we pull together the ultimate list of the Worst Things for Your Health? First, we determined how you're most likely to die. According to the CDC, most Americans die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, or suicide, in that order. Then we asked a panel of 20 of the country's top doctors, nutritionists, and medical experts to review the list and share the habits that most frequently lead to those concerns.
As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss I'm a Doctor and Here's How to Never Catch COVID-19 Outside.