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How bad is it really? Health rules you can break

/ Source: Self

Who doesn’t have a bit of a defiant streak, a small tendency to flout the rules? If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Uh, right. Never call a man twice if he didn’t respond to your first voice mail. Says who? Believe it or not, when it comes to health rules, you’ve got some wiggle room, too. So before you feel guilty about blowing off the gym or eating cookies for dinner or [insert your personal health confession here], find out which rule-breaking behaviors worry the experts most — and which aren’t so unhealthy after all.

“For dinner last night, I had an Oreo cookie. And another. And another. And another.”

How bad is it? Not so bad. “If your diet is usually healthy and balanced, then you could swing a cookie dinner once a week,” says self contributing editor Janis Jibrin, R.D. By “balanced,” we mean the rest of your meals are low in sugar, fat and salt and high in fruit, vegetables, fiber, whole grains and lean protein. Just don’t eat the entire box of Oreos, and add a glass of lowfat milk for calcium.

And keep in mind that cookies are a nutritional zero, so you may feel satisfied in the short term but famished soon after — in which case Jibrin recommends having a low-calorie, filling snack such as a cup of lentil soup or carrots with about 1/3 cup of hummus.

If your cookie indulgence leaves you wracked with guilt or trying to compensate by starving yourself the next day, tell yourself to eat healthily to make up for it, because starving can set you up for more overeating later.

“Every now and again, I go out on the town with the girls and get a bit soused.”

How bad is it? Kinda bad. It’s easy for two drinks to turn into too many, as the stats on binge drinking seem to indicate: Nearly 34 percent of 18- to 25-year-old women and about 13 percent of women ages 26 and older reported having five or more drinks on a single occasion in the past month, according to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Department of Health and Human Services.

True, overdoing it once in a while isn’t as worrisome as bingeing a couple of times a week, but getting falling-down drunk (or worse) at any time is always risky, says Sharon Wilsnack, Ph.D., professor at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

There’s no simple way to know when you’ll cross the line from merely drunk to possibly poisoned, and poisoning can lead to vomiting, passing out, seizures or even death (and, no, it doesn’t only happen to college kids). Even if you stop short of alcohol poisoning, frequent binge drinking is linked to liver and heart diseases, and if you do go on a bender, you’re more likely to have unprotected sex, increasing your chances of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Even more scary, Wilsnack says, you’re at greater risk for sexual assault. And the dangers of getting behind the wheel can’t be overstated. The bottom line? Don’t sip more than one drink per hour, and quit after three. You don’t have to give up a night out, but there’s no reason to stage a scene from Girls Gone Wild, either.

“I had a one-night stand.”

How bad is it? Kinda bad. The occasional fling can be fun — and hot! But know that there’s really no such thing as “safe” sex, warns Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., professor of ob/gyn at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Condoms do help protect against unwanted pregnancy and some STDs, but not others, including genital herpes. So if you decide to go for it, be prepared for any consequences.

“I’m not a regular smoker, but I do occasionally bum a butt on a night out.”

How bad is it? Really bad. With every drag, the potential for arterial damage grows. The arteries of sporadic puffers who smoked two cigarettes after two days of abstaining were 36 percent less responsive to changes in blood flow than nonsmokers’ arteries were, according to a study from the University of Georgia in Athens. Two more cigarettes later, and the social smokers’ arterial responsiveness was even worse.

Impaired arterial function is a first step toward heart disease, says senior study author Kevin McCully, Ph.D. Still tempted to light up? Two words: lung cancer. It’s time to ditch the sticks entirely.

“I never take my birth control pill at the same time each day, like my doctor says to.”

How bad is it? Not so bad. Your doc probably tells you to pop your pill like clockwork to help you create a routine so you won’t forget altogether, says Paul Blumenthal, M.D., director of family planning services and research at Stanford University in California. It’s not because most oral contraceptives won’t work if, say, 32 hours have passed since your last pill.

That said, there are a few exceptions. If you forget two doses, take the missed pills with your regular ones over the next two days, and it wouldn’t hurt to use a backup method for the rest of the month, Dr. Blumenthal advises.

And mini-pills such as Ortho Micronor should be taken at the same time daily: Unlike other oral contraceptives, which prevent ovulation, the mini-pill works primarily by thickening cervical mucus to block sperm from reaching an egg; it only sometimes inhibits ovulation. So it’s possible to get pregnant if you wait too long between those pills.

“I tan, but only on vacation.”

How bad is it? Really bad. Kudos to you for your 350-or-so days of shunning the sun, but tanning at all is a precursor to skin cancer. It’s like social smoking, says James Spencer, M.D., a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Florida: Your “little indulgence” isn’t worth the increased risk of landing in the cancer ward.

In fact, short but intense stints of sun exposure — like that weeklong spring getaway — significantly up your melanoma risk, and even one blistering sunburn in childhood raises your chances of developing skin cancer. The odds of being diagnosed with some form of the disease are one in five, making it the most common form of cancer in America. So wear sunscreen and use self-tanner lotions if you want a bronzed look.

“I don’t always exercise for 30 minutes — sometimes, I skip the gym entirely — but I’m at a normal weight.”

How bad is it? Not so bad. Cutting a workout short or taking a few days off is no biggie, and if you’re overdoing it, your body could use the break to recover. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean healthy: Half of normal-weight women had body-fat percentages above 30 percent, commonly considered the cutoff for good health, finds a study from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“And there are tremendous health benefits to exercise that are not weight-related,” says self contributing editor Lisa Callahan, M.D. Thirty minutes of exercise five days a week is ideal — it’s been shown to improve sleep, ease depression and lower the risk for diabetes, cancer and more. Still, you don’t have to become a slave to the gym. If you walk briskly 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, you’ll get your daily half hour of exercise.

“My cramps can get so bad that I pop an over-the-counter pain pill nearly every hour.”

How bad is it? Really bad. Yikes! One pill every hour for 12 hours can deliver up to 2,000 milligrams more of the painkiller than the safe limit. Overdoses of acetaminophen (found in Tylenol) lead to 56,000 emergency room visits each year, and misusing ibuprofen (in Advil) and naproxen (in Aleve) can cause your stomach to bleed.

Serious risks like these prompted the FDA to require clear warnings on labels for OTC pain relievers containing acetaminophen and for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which include ibuprofen, naproxen and ketoprofen. And now the FDA’s advisory panel has recommended lowering the current maximum total daily dose of acetaminophen (4 grams) in OTC products.

If the maximum safe dose isn’t enough to alleviate your cramps, then you could have a more serious problem such as uterine fibroids or endometriosis, Dr. Minkin cautions. See your doc to get a diagnosis and proper treatment: This is one time when self-treatment isn’t the way to go.