This time of year, we all want to make a fresh start. So maybe you go online in search for a diet plan or health tips. Or, if you go to the doctor and you get a new diagnosis, what do you do? You ask “Dr. Google” for help - you go online. But the problem is, anyone (and I mean anyone!) can go online and write anything they want. Or start a YouTube channel or Podcast and say anything they want. They don't have to provide research or even the most minimal credentials to do so. So how do you determine what information is real and what isn't? Here are 5 tips.
1) Check to see if the person writing the article or being quoted in the article, has reputable health credentials (or any credentials at all). Reputable credentials for general health information would include a physician - someone who carries an M.D. or D.O. and is licensed to practice medicine. If you’re looking at information about medications, a pharmacist (Pharm.D.) would be appropriate. If it’s nutrition information you're looking for, there are several reputable credentials to choose from. These would include an RD or RDN, meaning a Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (the “nutritionist” part is newer and is optional - the terms RD and RDN are interchangeable). Another option is a CNS (Certified Nutrition Specialist) or a PNS (Physician Nutrition Specialist). All of these credentials require 4-8 years of college education plus at least 1000 hours of internship/supervised practice and a certifying exam in addition to continuing education requirements throughout their career to keep current on research. Additionally, someone with a master or doctoral level degree in nutrition from an accredited institution is qualified to write about nutrition, even without a specific credential.
Many people think that medical doctors are experts in nutrition, but even though many of the chronic diseases treated by physicians originate from poor nutrition, many medical schools offer NO classes in nutrition. Some do offer some nutrition education, but it is usually very limited. However, some physicians have sought out further training in nutrition, such as those who completed a residency in lifestyle medicine or who have other postgraduate training in nutrition, such as a PNS, as noted above.
What credentials should you be skeptical of? The term "nutritionist" is unregulated and doesn't actually mean anything. It could range from someone who had no training at all who just decides to call themselves “nutritionist” all the way up to a someone who has a PhD in nutrition. So be careful to look at the background of people who are calling themselves nutritionists to determine if they are qualified.
"Health coach" is another dubious credential, because there is no licensure or unified body that determines what these credentials actually mean, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the individual carrying such a credential is qualified. You would need to look at their background and education to determine if they are educated in health coaching. Personal trainers also don't have authority to provide specific nutrition advice (beyond just basic healthy eating) unless they have additional education.
2) Check for references to research articles. Thousands upon thousands of new research studies are done every year. So when someone writes an article they should check resources from primary research, meaning they go to actual medical or nutrition journals to find information. Not linking to another (unqualified) blogger's article, or linking to a magazine article online (sorry, People magazine is NOT a legit source of health information). Referencing actual research articles from a peer-reviewed journal is the standard to which researchers and healthcare professionals are held to for where they obtain their information, and you should expect no less for bloggers and others writing health information online.
3) Always check for conflicts of interest. This is crucial, because someone could be extolling the benefits of a supplement or a product, and upon closer inspection, you find that they are profiting from this product. And sometimes they are pretty sneaky about this. For example, online “reviews” of products could actually be written by someone who is simply listing the products with affiliate links that they can make a profit on. Does this mean the product is bad? Not necessarily, but you should certainly question the validity of what they're writing, and what their motives are, and if they're just trying to make a profit. Consider looking at websites of professionals or legitimate organizations (Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic come to mind as great resources).
4) Avoid celebrities' advice. Celebrities look great. It's their job. However, it goes without saying that they are not qualified to provide health advice. So why do we listen to them? Because when we see how great they look, and see an article promising the same results it's pretty tempting, right? But these celebrities share information that isn't just ridiculous, sometimes it's truly unhealthy. For example, when Jimmy Kimmel asked Gwyneth Paltrow about some of the ridiculous things on her website, Goop.com, she is quoted as saying, "I don't know what the f*&$ we talk about" on her own website, which has put out some pretty outlandish diet plans.
5) Ridiculous headlines. We live in a noisy world. It is extremely difficult to get people’s attention. If you see an article that tells you something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It’s likely click bait. For example, if you see an article promises that you’ll lose 40 lbs in a month without cutting calories, sorry, but it’s not true (unless you consider amputation a viable weight loss option!)
So there are my 5 tips for avoiding false health information online. You have to be careful and use critical thinking to determine if the author is reputable and what their motives are for sharing the information. Many bloggers don’t mean any harm, but nonetheless share information that is outdated, incorrect, or just plain dangerous. Remember that ANYONE can start a website or a YouTube channel and say literally anything, so be careful when you look up health information.