People love to share nutrition information, and everyone seems to be a nutrition expert these days! Unfortunately, a lot of what we see in the media or hear people talking about is inaccurate and/or misleading. Some of this is relatively harmless. However, for some people, this contributes to confusion and unnecessary anxiety about food choices and sets consumers up to believe that there is a “perfect, correct and right” food, beverage or supplement for them to achieve their nutrition, performance, weight, or health goals.
Misinformation about food and eating often leads to people eliminating perfectly nutritious (and enjoyable) foods from their diet and many of my clients – casual exercisers and elite, competitive athletes, midlife women and those with a history of dieting or disordered eating – are easy prey for marketers who want to sell products or services to enhance sports performance, gain or lose weight, and/or “get healthy” – often with unsubstantiated claims.
To help you sort through the chatter and find credible, evidence-based nutrition information, here are 6 tips to help you spot misinformation.
1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix. When a person or product makes claims that sound too good to be true, it probably is. For example, per the following magazine cover suggesting that you can “lose 10 pounds in 7 days” – not only is this unlikely, but one should be concerned if you are losing that amount of weight in just a week (no matter what your starting weight is).
Also, recognize that break-throughs in science do not happen overnight or by just one individual or a single research lab.
2. Learn to distinguish hype from evidence-based science. Does the advertisement or nutrition information include fear-based words or dramatic statements (i.e. “break-through”, “miracle”, “toxic”, “bad”, “cure-all”) to influence you one way or another about a food or product? Claims about juice cleanses and detox supplements, for example sway consumers into believing that a single nutrient (versus your overall dietary pattern) will cure or solve your health or weight concerns. Abby Langer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, writes quite frequently about fad diets and nutrition trends and provides a great resource to learn more. Check out this ONE on the celery juice diet.
3. Are claims supporting the product based on personal stories rather than on facts? Be critical of anecdotal information from friends, coaches, and celebrities who have no formal training in nutrition. Ask questions about recommendations to understand if the reported benefits are backed by rigorous scientific research.
4. When a claim is based on research, consider the following questions. Did the headline or article capture the actual results of the study or do we have a case of a journalist who didn’t read past the abstract and/or wrote a sexy headline as “clickbait?” Has the study been replicated with same or similar results among different researchers? How many humans were used in the study (or were animals used)? Is there a direct cause and effect for the population the claim is targeting? For example, a study that demonstrates prunes has a positive effect on bone health in postmenopausal women does not necessarily mean that a 20-year old male or premenopausal female athlete would experience the same benefit. Nothing wrong with eating prunes, but we can’t assume prunes are going to have the same effect with these other populations. And…per this particular study outcome, another important question to ask is whether study results were due to “association” or “causation.” Consider the data supporting the facts that: a) more people eat ice cream in the summer months, and b) more people drown in the summer months. It appears that there is an association between summer, eating ice cream and people drowning, but can we conclude that eating ice cream increases your risk of drowning? Probably not!
5. When considering products, such as special foods or supplements, are you aware of the products’ safety, purity or effectiveness? Manufacturers of dietary supplements must list all ingredients on the product label; however, a dietary supplement may contain a banned substance not listed due to poor manufacturing practices or intentional adulteration. Furthermore, some supplement ingredients may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications resulting in adverse effects that can be life threatening. Consumers also need to be cautious of supplements that contain very high amounts of performing-enhancing ingredients, i.e. caffeine, citrulline or beta-alanine, that are not illegal, but in high doses may cause unwanted side effects such as increased blood pressure, jitteriness, or itchy tingling skin (in the case of beta-alanine). Many consumers believe that “even if a supplement or herbal remedy may not help me, it, it at least won’t hurt me.” However some ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, consumed in high doses for a long enough period of time, can be a concern.
Despite the FDA demanding companies stop selling these products…
HCG products remain marketed and sold to consumers!
The best way to protect yourself against questionable health and nutrition products is to be an informed consumer. Third party companies, such as NSF, Informed Choice or Consumer Lab, conduct testing to verify product ingredients. You may also contact the manufacturer directly to ask questions about how it tests for safety or if there are ingredients that aren’t listed on the label.
6. What are the person’s qualifications? Just because someone “went through something” does not make them an expert. Dig a little deeper and ask for credentials. Many states explicitly define that the practice of nutrition and dietetics must be done by a licensed professional. Look for the initials “RDN or LDN” to identify a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist. For athletes, look for the initials “CSSD” that designates a Registered Dietitian who has specialized training in sports nutrition. To find a sports dietitian in your area, access “Find a SCAN RD” at http://www.scandpg.org.
In addition, to an individual’s credentials, following are tips to help you navigate information found on various media sources. While the internet can be a minefield for misinformation, it can also be a valuable source of accurate and reliable information. Websites ending in .edu (an educational institution), .gov (government agency), or .org (non-profit) are considered good sources for credible information or to verify nutrition information read elsewhere.
When reading nutrition material in books, magazines or other publications, look at who wrote the article you are reading. The author should be educated in the field of nutrition/dietetics and preferably hold a degree in nutrition from an accredited university. With any nutrition recommendations, beware of personal bias and when reading an article or blog, look for current and up-to-date citations with research that meets the criteria for point #4.
Be a critical thinker!
Finally, be a critical thinker when it comes to information about nutrition or your health. Frankly, the words “health” and “wellness” have been hijacked by the multi-billion dollar diet industry making it essential for all of us to be smart and responsible consumers. If you find yourself fixated or obsessed with reading articles (or watching health/food documentaries), consider the following:
Why do you think you are so interested in this information – rather than just dismissing the sensationalized content and reading/watching something with entertainment value?
What are you hoping to learn more about or are you feeling anxious about food/weight in general (and may need to address the anxiety and ruminating on these thoughts)?
Do you have difficulty anytime you hear or read nutrition information from a qualified health provider? For example, learning that “all foods fit” or “consuming sugar will not cause cancer or diabetes” but perhaps this challenges or disagrees with something you read or believe that says the contrary – why might this be happening for you? If someone told you that the earth was flat (with all kinds of their own research and reasons for their claims), would you believe it? Why or why not?
Bottom line is that it may be a good idea to talk this out with a qualified nutrition professional and talk through all of these messages…and ultimately, maybe it would be helpful to avoid “googling” and binge-watching food documentaries and enjoy something more pleasure-oriented. For the health of it!