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7 Surprising Health Mistakes You're Probably Making

These seemingly harmless habits are actually sabotaging your health goals.

Medically reviewed in November 2021

woman smiling after exercising
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You work hard to stay fit, eat right and avoid risky behaviors. But you could be sabotaging your hard work without realizing it. Even the healthiest people can make surprising mistakes. Here are seven traps you might be falling into and simple ways to avoid them.

meat broiling on the grill
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You inhale cooking fumes

You may be exposing yourself to a shocking source of second-hand smoke. Experts believe frying fats releases harmful chemicals linked to lung cancer into the air. Fried meats, especially, produce heterocyclic amines, which are cancer-causing compounds that can also be found in cigarette smoke. To avoid exposure, grill meats outdoors. Indoors, cook in a well-ventilated area with an extractor fan running if possible—especially if you have a gas stove.

pasta salad
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You avoid carbs

Skipping carbs entirely may not keep you slim. In fact, eliminating them can deprive you of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables—all important parts of a healthy, well-rounded diet.

Of course, including carbohydrates in your menu doesn’t give you the green light to eat buckets of pasta, says Frances Largeman-Roth, registered dietitian nutritionist, author of Eating in Color and co-author of The CarbLovers Diet. Chowing down on refined carbs like pasta, soda, white bread and white rice can lead to overeating and weight gain, and raise your risk of diabetes and heart disease in the long run.

So, when you do indulge in refined carbs, do so in moderation. For example, Largeman-Roth recommends eating pasta along with other things like extra virgin olive oil, herbs, vegetables and lean protein. “Treat the pasta more as an ingredient in the total dish, and not as the center of the plate,” she explains.

In the meantime, adding whole grains to your diet can improve your health. Try quinoa, farro, brown rice or bulgur with your next meal.

Woman looking up recipe on tablet
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You eat well, but leave out entire food groups

Just because you consistently choose healthy foods doesn’t mean you’re getting the full range of nutrients you need. So, keep a journal for a week to take stock of your habits. You may realize you’re neglecting entire food groups, such as non- or low-fat dairy from animal or fortified vegan sources. Eighty-six percent of Americans don’t get enough, according a 2015-2016 nutrition survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture. Or, you may discover you're over-eating other foods like sugar—70 percent of Americans get too much.

Your notes may reveal surprising trends in your routine and help you kick-start better habits. One large 2008 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests keeping a food log can even double weight loss when dieting.

Woman reading a menu
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You touch the menu—and then your food

You can wash your hands before sitting down to a restaurant meal, but still wind up seasoning your entrée with germs if you then handle the menu. Both electronic and paper menus often harbor bugs because:

  • Even though they're touched often, restaurants may rarely clean them.
  • Most people don’t wash their hands properly after using the restroom.

One 2013 study from the Journal of Environmental Health found menus to be covered in bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, which continued to spread to people’s hands for up to 24 hours.

Salt and pepper shakers are also frequently used, but rarely washed. The next time you eat out, wash your hands after ordering and use a napkin to grab the condiments.

couple cleaning together
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You overlook allergy hot zones when cleaning

You might keep a tidy home, but allergens like mold, pollen and dust mites can settle into some surprising places. Did you know your air conditioner (AC) filter should be cleaned or replaced every one to three months? The small-particle filters in both central AC systems and wall units, which capture household allergens, can clog easily, causing particles to flourish and spread. 

To kill dust mites, duvets and stuffed animals should be washed on a hot cycle or frozen for 24 hours and then washed each month.

The inside of your trash can and the back of your shower curtain can be mold hideaways, too. Regularly disinfect them with diluted bleach. Aim to clean your trash can weekly and your shower curtain monthly.

Woman rubbing sunscreen on her legs
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You only apply sunscreen once

Sun damage can happen after just 15 minutes, yet the majority of Americans don’t wear the proper amount of sunscreen. Applying it once at the start of your day isn’t enough. For optimal protection, reapply at least every two hours—more frequently when swimming or sweating. Remember to lather up on overcast days, too, when 80 percent of the sun’s rays can still reach you.

The best approach is a combination of sun-safety strategies. Try using a full-spectrum SPF sunscreen, seeking shade and wearing a hat and cover-up. Why? Sunscreen doesn’t protect against 100 percent of the sun’s rays. You can still get burned in the shade, since sun bounces off reflective surfaces like sand, water and snow.

eating on the go
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You're always eating on the go

If you consistently wolf down meals to save time, you might be hurting your health in the long run. People who eat faster are more likely to have a higher BMI and be obese, according to a 2015 review of 23 studies published in the International Journal of Obesity.

When you shovel in food, it piles up in your stomach before your brain can realize you’re full. Give your mind a chance to catch up by timing your meals so they last at least 20 minutes. Add fiber-rich foods like fresh vegetables, which slow down your chewing and encourage healthy digestion.

If you do have to eat on the go, take time to prep some healthy options at home. For a handheld meal, try a whole grain wrap filled with lean chicken, tons of veggies and mustard. Make your own trail mix by combining unsalted nuts, dried cranberries and a little bit of dark chocolate. Carrot and celery sticks with mini packs of hummus are good choices, too.

Sources:

W Jedrychowski, FP Perera, et al. “Impact of barbecued meat consumed in pregnancy on birth outcomes accounting for personal prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Birth cohort study in Poland.” Nutrition. April 2012. 28(4), 372–377.
Greger, M. “How not to die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease.” New York, NY: FlatIron Books. 2015.
Time Labs. “Here’s How Americans Are Failing to Meet Dietary Guidelines.” January 14, 2016. Accessed November 12, 2020.
United States Department of Agriculture. “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” December 2015. Accessed November 20, 2020.
JF Hollis, CM Guillion, et al. “Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2008. Volume 35, Number 2.
SA Sirsat, JK Choi JK, et al. “Persistence of Salmonella and E. coli on the surface of restaurant menus.” Journal of Environmental Health. 2013 Mar;75(7):8-14; quiz 54.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “Cleaning Tips for Allergy and Asthma Sufferers.” September 28, 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
Energy.gov. “Maintaining Your Air Conditioner.” 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
World Health Organization. “Prevention of Allergy and Allergic Asthma.” January 2002. Accessed November 12, 2020.
American Cleaning Institute. “Cleaning to Control Allergies & Asthma.” 2010. Accessed November 12, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Protect Your Family From Skin Cancer.” 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How Can I Protect My Children from the Sun?” April 9, 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
EPA.gov. “The Burning Facts.” September 2006. Accessed November 12, 2020.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. “Sunscreen FAQs.” 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. “Prevent Skin Cancer.” 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
British Nutrition Foundation. “Understanding satiety: feeling full after a meal.” 2020. Accessed November 12, 2020.
T Ohkuma, Y Hirakawa, et al. “Association between eating rate and obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” International Journal of Obesity. 2015 Nov;39(11):1589-96.
E Robinson, E Almiron-Roig, et al. “A systematic review and meta-analysis examining the effect of eating rate on energy intake and hunger.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014 Jul;100(1):123-51.
PL Jia, C Zhang, et al. “The risk of lung cancer among cooking adults: a meta-analysis of 23 observational studies.” Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology. 2018 Feb;144(2):229-240.
CR Feichtner, LG Arlian, et al. “Home freezers kill house dust mites.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. January 1, 2018. Volume 141, Issue 1, p451-454.
Rocky Mountain Institute. “Gas Stoves: Health and Air Quality Impacts and Solutions.” 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “Obesity Prevention Source: Food and Diet.” 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
R Estruch, E Ros, et al. “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil or Nuts.” New England Journal of Medicine. June 21, 2018; 378:e34.

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