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Selp-Help Fads Don't Work, Except These Ones

Most 'science-backed' self-improvement fads are bogus, but here are the ones you should try

By Erin Brodwin / San Francisco Gate

Color! Journal! Take a personality test.

Each week, it can seem like there's a new trend aimed at making you slimmer, happier, or more productive. Most of them claim to be backed by psychological or physiological research, but many of them are not.

We created this list to help you sort out which tricks might be helpful and which ones are better ignored. Take a look.

Tidying up to be healthier: Try it — research backs it up.

Some studies suggest that physical orderliness — a clean, neatly organized office, for example — may be linked with some positive outcomes, like eating healthier.

A 2013 study, for example, found that when they gave a set of volunteers in two types of rooms a choice between a chocolate bar and an apple for a snack, the people in a cluttered room were more likely to choose the chocolate bar, while those in the neat room were more likely to choose the apple. When the same participants were given the option to donate money to a charitable cause, those in the orderly room also tended to give more money than those in the disorderly room. So give it a shot.

Taking multivitamins to avoid getting sick: Skip them; most of them don't work.

Decades of research has failed to find any substantial evidence that the vast majority of vitamins and supplements do any significant good. Some of them might even be harming us. Several supplements have been linked with an increase in certain cancers, for example, while others have been associated with a rise in the risk of kidney stones. Still others have been tied to an overall higher risk of death from any cause.

That said, certain vitamins — like Vitamin D and folate — are tough to get from food, so you might want to add those to your daily regimen. Here's a comprehensive guide on which ones you should skip and which you should take.

Using astrology to boost your success: Skip it — it's not scientific in the slightest.

One easy way to determine that astrology is unscientific is this: It's so-called predictions can't be tested, which is one of the standard components of the scientific method. Instead, horoscopes are carefully worded to be highly general, such as "You will face great difficulties ahead." Any result, from getting fired from your job to getting a raise, could be seen as fitting those expectations.

Still, horoscopes remain popular, something psychologists think is at least partially a result of the fact that we're biased to see "personalized" results as accurate. This is called the Forer Effect after psychologist Bertram Forer. In 1948, Forer gave each of his students a personality test and then told them that each "result" was individually unique. He asked them to rank the tests' accuracy and on average, they said it was 85% accurate. Later, he revealed to the students that he'd lied and given them all the exact same result.

Low-fat diets to lose weight: Skip them — they don't work.

Low-fat diets don't work. Our bodies need fat, protein, and fiber to function properly.

An 8-year trial involving almost 50,000 women, roughly half of whom went on a low-fat diet, found that those on the low-fat plan didn't lower their risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, or heart disease. Plus, they didn't lose much weight, if any.

YogaMeditating to calm the mind: Try it — research suggests it can help.

A study published in February showed for the first time that when we meditate — independent of whether we're expert meditators or total newbies — the practice appears to produce measurable brain changes in two key ways: First, it facilitates more communication between two brain regions involved in self-control and focus, and second, it lowers levels of a substance called IL-6 that's been linked with stress and inflammation. IL-6 can also sometimes be used as an early indicator of later health problems.

Doing a 'dry' month to undo the damages of drinking: Try it — it might help.

While there are very few studies looking at the benefits of abstaining from alcohol in the short-term, at least one study showed that a dry month was at least somewhat beneficial for most people: after successfully abstaining from alcohol for at least 30 days, a majority of people continued to drink less often, even six months later. Plus, when they did drink, these people also reported having fewer drinks. Most also described having an easier time refusing alcohol and they tended to show lower dependence scores on the 10-item Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.

Using personality tests to pick your career — skip them; science suggests they're not worth it.

One similarity the Meyers-Briggs personality test shares with astrology is that it relies on binary choices. According to the test, for example, you're either "introverted" or "extroverted." In reality, very few people would qualify as simply one or the other, as Dean Burnett points out in The Guardian.

This point is hammered home by the fact that statistical studies of the Myers-Briggs show that its data follows a normal distribution — where the data falls around a central value with no bias to the left or the right, forming a balanced hill shaped curve — instead of a bimodal one, where the data are lumped around two peaks.

'Clean' eating to lose weight: Skip it, and eat real food instead.

Eating "clean" doesn't mean anything. Instead, follow these basics:

Keep vegetables as the cornerstone of your meals. Or, in the words of famous journalist and food writer Michael Pollan, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Snack on nuts. Since they're high in protein, nuts can help stabilize blood-sugar levels — which, if they plummet, can make healthy people feel "hangry" (hungry and angry) and is especially dangerous for people with diabetes. Nuts are also a good source of fiber, a key nutrient that helps aid digestion and keeps us feeling full.

Cut back on added sugar and refined carbs. Diets that are high in sugar and refined carbs (white rice, sweet snack foods, white bread) and low in whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat) have been linked with health problems, while diets high in whole grains and low in refined carbs tend to be linked with more positive outcomes.

Incorporate oily fish, like salmon, into your diet. Salmon is rich in omega-3 fats, which help protect our cell membranes, the structure protecting the inner components from their outside environment. They're also the building blocks of the hormones that regulate blood clotting and inflammation.

Eat avocados. While they're high in fat and calories — just half of one packs 120 calories, about the equivalent of a slice of bread — avocados are low in sugar and rich in fiber. So add a few slices to your next meal.

Adult coloring to reduce stress: Try it — studies suggest it can't hurt.

While coloring within the lines isn't exactly the most creative activity you could engage in, any small amount of activity that encourages you to focus in a creative way might help decrease feelings of stress.

Several small studies on people with specific health problems, from substance abuse to cancer, suggest that drawing and music therapy can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Psychologists suggest this may be a result of the fact that creative activities can help quiet the mind by encouraging us to focus. As of yet, few large-scale studies have been done in healthy people, but a little coloring can't hurt.

Thinking positive to turn your dreams into reality: Skip it — studies suggest it may do the opposite.

"Positive thinking" — a school of thought in the psychology world that suggests that viewing the world more optimistically can help you feel more satisfied and less stressed — has some limitations. In her book "Rethinking Positive Thinking," psychologist Gabriele Oettingen proposes that while thinking optimistically sounds great on paper, it falls short in reality. People who daydream about a better world, she says, end up merely fantasizing about a reality rather than taking concrete actions to make it happen.

One study she coauthored of women enrolled in a weight-reduction program found that those who thought more positively about their future outcomes tended to lose fewer pounds than those who thought more negatively about them.

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