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How Bad Is It, Doc?

For this year’s Top Doctors issue, we asked a few doctors how bad our most common habits really are. Here’s their diagnosis.

How bad is it … to skip vegetables?

Do you have scurvy? If not, it’s not terrible to pass on broccoli once in a while, says Dr. Robert Clutter, a doctor of family medicine at Community Health Network. Most people get enough vegetables accidentally—say, in spaghetti sauce or smoothies—or they get required vitamins from other food sources, so they won’t develop vitamin deficiency. Veggies are full of fiber, though, and low on carbohydrates and calories, so they’re key to maintaining a healthy weight, which helps keep cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar in check. If you’re not eating vegetables, you’re likely eating other foods that have more calories and sugar. However, don’t stress about the number of servings of vegetables needed daily. Clutter’s rule of thumb is: Whenever vegetables are available, chose them over sweets and snacks. The good news is even avowed vegetable haters can change. “I used to not like Brussels sprouts, but now, they’re pretty good,” Clutter says. “It’s an acquired taste.”

The Verdict: Moderately bad. But as long as you’re able to maintain a healthy weight, it probably won’t kill you.


How bad is it … to get a sunburn now and then?

Dr. Anita HaggstromTony Valainis

If your childhood memories include a few painful sunburns, Dr. Anita Haggstrom, a pediatric dermatologist at IU Health, has some searingly bad news: Getting between one and five sunburns in childhood increases the risk for skin cancer by 60 to 80 percent. Everyone should practice sun protection. That includes wearing a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher, preferably a physical block with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide because there’s less absorption into the body than with a chemical block. Haggstrom also recommends sun-protective clothing like hats and rash guards, as well as avoiding the sun during times of highest UV exposure—between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. While aloe vera and an anti-inflammatory will relieve the pain of a burn, there’s no way to undo damage from the sun, so vigilant skin screenings are a must. “Melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, has a high cure rate if caught early,” Haggstrom says. “If not caught early, it’s difficult to treat.”

The Verdict: Really bad.


How bad is it … to have a couple of beers each night?

Dr. Michael MorelliTony Valainis

“One to two a day is probably fine,” says Dr. Michael Morelli, a gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Franciscan Health. In fact, a few extra on the weekends is probably OK, too. Morelli points to guidelines from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse, which say that on average, men under age 65 can have up to four drinks a day or to up to 14 drinks in a week. For women, the recommendation is no more than three drinks a day or seven drinks in a week. (A drink equals a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.) “I use myself as an example when I talk to patients,” Morelli says. “I say, ‘I enjoy drinking, too, but it’s just a matter of trying to make sure you’re keeping it within a reasonable range.’”

The Verdict: Not so bad (as long as you don’t have any underlying diseases).


How bad is it … to not finish a course of antibiotics?

Dr. Douglas WebbTony Valainis

It depends, says Dr. Douglas Webb, an infectious-disease specialist at IU Health. In some cases—a missed dose here or there—that’s probably OK. But if after a few days you start to feel better and stop taking the medication, the infection might come roaring back worse than before, bringing with it complications. It’s best to take antibiotics like they’re prescribed. “If you’re supposed to take them three times a day for five days, then please do that,” Webb says. “Don’t take it one a day and then two and then skip a day.” Even if your health isn’t affected, you’re helping create antibiotic-resistant bugs over time. If you’re tempted to take any remaining antibiotics the next time you feel sick, step away from the medicine cabinet. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” Webb says. “If you’ve got antibiotics prescribed for a certain infection—you’re given 14 pills, you only take seven, and you have seven lying around—you just need to throw them away.”

The Verdict: Not so bad if you miss a dose or two. Very bad if you shorten it by several days.


How bad is it … to eat before surgery?

Dr. Erica GiblinTony Valainis

“Anesthesia relaxes the whole body, so it also relaxes the stomach,” says Dr. Erica Giblin, a surgeon at Ascension St. Vincent. That can allow the contents of the stomach to travel up the food pipe, spill over into the windpipe, and end up in the lungs, making you really sick. For scheduled surgeries, it’s safe to eat solid foods up to eight hours before the procedure, and if you need to take vital medications with a sip of water the morning of surgery, go ahead. Actually, it’s fine to drink clear liquids, like water, apple juice, and even coffee, up to two hours before surgery. However, add cream to that morning cup, and that coffee is no longer “clear.” Giblin had a patient who had followed the guidelines and was about to go into surgery. “Her husband had a coffee with milk,” she says. “He set it down in pre-op, and she was used to drinking coffee in the morning, so she grabbed the cup and slugged half of it down. This was 15 minutes before she went into the operating room. We had to hold the case.”

The Verdict: Pretty bad.


How bad is it … to skip an annual flu shot?

Dr. Emily FrankTony Valainis

No one likes the pinch from a shot in the arm, but you know what’s worse? Influenza. “It feels like you were hit by a truck,” says Dr. Emily Frank, an internist at Ascension St. Vincent. The biggest risk with the flu, however, is a secondary bacterial infection like pneumonia, which can land people in the hospital. Starting at 6 months old, everyone should get a flu shot each flu season. If you think the shot might be contraindicated for you, it’s best to discuss it with a doctor. When otherwise healthy people skip the shot, it affects “herd immunity,” which is what protects those who can’t get the vaccine. “I try to dispel the myths,” Frank says. “Because the injectable vaccine is not a live virus, you can’t get the flu from the flu shot. Even if the yearly vaccine isn’t a perfect match to active strains, you have a much lower risk of contracting the flu if you’ve had the shot.”

The Verdict: Somewhat bad for you. Very bad for all of us.


How bad is it … to sit at a desk all day?

Dr. Kiran KaretiTony Valainis

If you work in an office, sitting at a desk is part of the job. But not moving all day turns out to be disastrous for your health. Sitting for longer than two hours a day in the car (let alone the eight you probably spend in your chair) has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and stroke, says Dr. Kiran Kareti, a cardiologist at Community Health. “A sedentary lifestyle is almost comparable to tobacco use,” he says. If you run five miles in the morning and then sit at a desk all day, you still lead a sedentary lifestyle. So look for ways to be up and around during the day. Standing and treadmill desks are options, and Kareti also likes fitness trackers that prompt wearers to stand and move every so often.

The Verdict: Surprisingly bad.

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