Which Bad Health Habit Is Worse?

Are your bad health habits minor gaffes or major crimes? We talk to the experts

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You do your best to eat well, exercise and treat your body like a temple, but let’s face it, we all slip up sometimes. Here’s our guide to the everyday faux pas you don’t have to lose sleep over, and the ones you should kick to the curb, ASAP.

Regularly skipping breakfast or starting the day  with a sugary treat?

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you can get into the habit of eating something within an hour of waking up, even if it’s a sugary, high-calorie food to start, you are better off than those who skip it altogether,” says Sarah Remmer, registered dietitian and owner of Nutrio Consulting in Calgary. Many dieters think that by opting out of a morning meal, they’re doing themselves a favour and saving calories. In reality, you’re missing out on hours of calorie-burning time if you skip breakfast, says Remmer. “As soon as you feed your body calories and nutrients, it starts to burn calories at a faster rate.” Even if this means grabbing a muffin with your morning coffee, getting into the habit of eating something is what’s key, she says. But having a balanced breakfast is still best, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Remmer recommends including three key components: a whole grain, a protein and a fruit or veggie. Try plain, 100 percent whole-grain oatmeal sweetened with berries and a skim or soy latte, for instance, or grab a whole-grain granola bar, yogourt and apple on your way out the door.

Not washing fruits and veggies before you eat them or not rinsing raw chicken before you cook it?
The peels and skins of raw fruits and vegetables are an often underestimated source of bacteria, says Dr. Tony Mazzulli, infectious disease consultant at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. So when we neglect to wash produce that will be eaten uncooked, we’re putting ourselves at risk for E. coli poisoning. Harmful microbes can come into contact with our food at various stages of processing, he explains. The germs can be introduced by food handlers who have not properly washed up, by contaminated fertilizers and soil, or by our own grubby kitchens. The good news: “The acid in our stomachs will kill 99.9 percent of the microbes that might get through, so anyone with a healthy gastrointestinal tract doesn’t really need to worry,” says Dr. Mazzulli. But to cut down our risk when eating raw fruits and veggies—even if they’re organic—Remmer recommends a thorough scrubbing with a brush. As for washing raw chicken, this habit is well intentioned but counterproductive. By rinsing raw meat under the tap, the germs—which would otherwise have been killed in the cooking process—taint your sink, where they can easily spread to other surfaces through careless handling and sloppy sanitization. Limiting the areas touched by raw meat is your safest bet to avoid food poisoning.

Never flossing or never using mouthwash?
If you’re guilty of cutting corners in the bathroom, you’re not alone. A 2010 study done on behalf of Crest and Oral-B found that only 16 percent of Canadians follow a proper oral hygiene regimen of brushing, flossing and rinsing. If the choice is between a fluoride mouthwash or flossing, go with the latter. “Floss mechanically breaks down bacterial colonies in between teeth. This removes plaque, which reduces gum inflammation and cavity formation,” says Dr. Sol Weiss, a cosmetic dentist at The Art of Dentistry in Toronto. “Mouthwash reduces overall bacterial counts, but it does not remove the plaque adhering to tooth surfaces.” But lax dental hygiene doesn’t just cause cavities and unkissable breath; a serious lack of upkeep has even been linked to potentially deadly conditions. Research has found that people with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease. That’s because the bacteria in our mouths can actually enter our bloodstreams, where it can attach to fatty plaques in arteries and encourage blockages.

Holding in your anger to avoid a fight or having a big blow-up?
Let it out! “Anger is one of the most feared emotions but also one of the healthiest because it tends to lead to action,” says Michael Vallis, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. When we repress our emotions, it not only puts a strain on the relationship in question but can also cause physiological issues. Bottling up emotions for too long can disrupt most major areas of the brain, says Vallis, and it can impact our immune, cardiovascular and neurological systems. That’s because sustained stress is hard on the body, which can react by breaking down at its weakest point, he explains. Plus, health problems can arise out of coping mechanisms such as drinking, gambling or overeating. But if you think a heated argument is your best way to break the tension, think again—screaming matches are better left to reality TV. “You can’t unsay words,” says Vallis. “It’s very difficult for people to communicate in a state of mutual anger.” Take a step back and be respectful of the other person involved. Find a healthy way  to defuse the anger, he advises, such as hitting the gym, writing music or taking a bath, then calmly sit down and talk. It’s often the only way you’ll be really heard.

Sharing your lip gloss or lending your eyeliner?
Lucky for us, modern makeup is on our side—most have preservatives that quash bacterial growth, says William Navarre, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto. But be careful if you’re in the habit of group maquillage before a night on the town: Lending out eyeliner, for instance, is an easy way to pass around a case of itchy, sticky pink eye. “The conjunctivitis virus can survive on the surface of your eyeliner for a more extended period of time,” says Dr. Mazzulli, so when the next person uses it and a flake of product falls into her eye, she can get infected. As for lip gloss, your chances of spreading a cold or flu are considerably lower. One person would have to apply the gloss, contaminate it with saliva and then pass it immediately to the next person, explains Dr. Mazzulli. Since the lifespan of cold or flu spores are short, they can’t survive for indefinite periods on inanimate objects. Nevertheless, Navarre says a good rule of thumb is to simply be aware of who’s dipping into your beauty stash.

Having one cigarette a day or smoking several in one night?
One isn’t really healthier than the other. And even though a sporadic or “social” smoking habit may seem less perilous than puffing through a pack a day, “there is no safe level of cigarette smoking,” warns Susan Bondy, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health. The truth is, every time you light up you’re inhaling 60 to 70 known carcinogens, putting you at a sharply increased risk for developing lung cancer (the top cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada). “[Having] one or two cigarettes a day doubles your risk of lung cancer,” says Roberta Ferrence, executive director of The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit and senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. In her view, smoking should be considered a social activity—though not in the way you may expect. When you light up, you’re forcing everyone around you to smoke too. And each year, more than 1,000 non-smokers in Canada die from causes related to second-hand smoke, reports the Canadian Cancer Society. Bondy points out that second-hand smoke can actually give you a dose of toxic chemicals similar to occasional smoking. Bottom line: Butt out.