Fun Flashback: Vintage Health Claims from ’60s Reader’s Digest Magazine Ads

Sugar helps you lose weight? Get the fastest tan under the sun? Find out which of these 'Mad Men'-era health claims from vintage magazine ads are laughably old-fashioned—and which still ring true 50 years later.

“Be Really Refreshed”

Reader's Digest Publication

The popular soda manufacturer promises an energy lift in this March 1960 magazine ad: “Only Coca-Cola gives you the cheerful lift that’s bright and lively.” We now know that soda's sugar buzz is quickly followed by an energy crash.

"Milk: Nature's Nightcap"

Reader's Digest Publication

A warm glass of milk has been a longtime home remedy for insomnia for good reason, as evidenced by this vintage March 1960 depiction of milk as a nightcap. Although people point to milk's tryptophan content for its soporific effects, more recent research shows that the tryptophan in protein-rich foods like milk isn’t able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and that milk’s effect on our sleepiness is likely due to psychological comfort.

“The Most Useful Protein”

Reader's Digest Publication

Billing itself as having protein that’s "100% as useful as the protein in meat," Life cereal marketed itself as a health food in its January 1962 ad. (Introduced in 1961, Life didn’t launch its popular “Mikey” ad until the 1970s.)

As for the meat comparison, Life wasn’t exactly spot-on: Meat is considered a “complete protein,” which means it contains all the amino acids your body needs for good health. Other plant sources of complete proteins include soy and quinoa. Whole grains like oats aren’t considered complete proteins, but making sure your diet includes other protein sources like beans, seeds, and nuts ensures you get all the protein you need.

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“Fastest Tan Under the Sun”

Reader's Digest Publication

We can just see dermatologists shaking their heads at this July 1963 claim that this “sun-balanced formula” provides “the best tan possible with the best protection.” Even 50 years of solid science have yet to fully debunk the pop-culture myth of a safe tan. Derms today insist there's no such thing as a safe base tan because that sun-kissed look is basically evidence of DNA damage that’s already occurred in your skin cells.

“Something Good Between Meals”

Reader's Digest Publication

This November 1962 ad from Juicy Fruit says it "supplies the body with just enough of what it takes to provide that pleasant little 'pickup' you need between meals"—and there is interesting research behind the health benefits of chewing gum.

Earlier this year, British researchers published a paper that found chewing gum helped study participants improve concentration during a task that tested their ability to focus. A 2009 University of Rhode Island study (albeit sponsored by the Wrigley Science Institute) found that people who chewed gum in the morning consumed fewer calories at lunch and reported feeling less hungry.

“Is One-Third of His Life Worth Anything to You?”

Reader\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s Digest Publication

In this surprisingly forward-thinking mattress ad from July 1963, Simmons points out how valuable sleep is to our overall heath: “About one-third of his life is spent in bed … If, during those hours, his body, nerves, and heart have a chance to recuperate from the day’s turmoil … this man of yours has a better chance in life.” Decades of sleep medicine science later, we know that people who get too-little sleep have a higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and overall death.

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“How to Shape Up”

Reader's Digest Publication

It’s hard to imagine in 2013—when sugar added to processed foods shoulders much of the blame for America’s obesity epidemic—that this May 1964 ad depicted sugar as a diet aid. “Sugar … takes the edge off pretty girls’ appetites so that they don’t need or want heavier, fattening foods. Sugar is the sensible weight-watcher because it doesn’t leave you feeling draggy.”

“Are You Dieting?”

Reader's Digest Publication

This December 1964 ad for One A Day multivitamins makes an interesting point that many experts today still agree with: “many diets are notoriously vitamin-poor … while winning the calorie battle, you may lose the vitamin war.” The research on taking multivitamins to improve your health, however, is mixed. While you run the risk of missing out on vitamins when you slash your overall food intake, filling your plate with nutrient-dense fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and fish should help ensure you get the vitamins and minerals you need from food.

“Polyunsaturating Her Entire Family”

Reader\\\\\\\'s Digest Publication

The sixties issues of Reader’s Digest were packed with ads from various margarine and vegetable oil companies, touting the benefits of unsaturated fat—like this Mazola one from February 1969—as experts warned about the heart risks of saturated fats in butter.

But the latest science shows that this understanding was a little too simplistic. In a 2013 study published in the journal BMJ, researchers found that not all unsaturated plant fats are created equal. Those rich in linoleic acid—or omega-6 fatty acids—may be linked to greater risk of heart disease and deaths from any cause.

“In the 1960s all polyunsaturated fats were considered the same,” Christopher Ramsden, MD, a clinical investigator at the National Institutes of Health, told “They were grouped together under one mechanism of being able to lower blood-cholesterol levels. Then, over the ensuing decades, it became clear as science progressed that there were multiple types of polyunsaturated fats, and these compounds potentially have distinct biochemical and health effects.”

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