Fake News or Bad Science? How to Detect Nutrition BS.

As a soon to be registered dietitian nutritionist (6 more months!) my practice is grounded with evidence-based research that seeks to improve individual’s health by increasing the understanding we have with our food, physical activity, nutrition and well-being. Rather than critiquing fake news, I’m passionate about translating the statistics, theories, and methodologies found in scientific literature into lay language that you can easily comprehend in a fun manner. Along the road I myself have fallen susceptible to information presented from non-credible sources and I am on a mission to present you with tips and ideas that are scientifically accurate and alert you to nutrition bogus that is not evidence-based. By the end of this article you will have the backgrounded to begin questioning the efficacy of a new fad diet or claim and therefore will improve your ability to debunk bad science!

STEP 1: IDENTIFY WHERE THE INFORMATION IS BEING SOURCED.

Did you read about a new topic from a credible source? By credible source I mean based off of a peer-reviewed paper where the source is being referenced. This could include a blog post, social media, or YouTube ONLY IF an expert with credentials is being referenced. Example: Are you going to buy a used car from a person who is withholding the Carfax history report? Probably not. The same is true for nutrition- it probably isn’t a good idea to source information from someone withholding the references and citations from a peer-reviewed paper. Blanket statements don’t translate to facts.

I highly recommend subscribing to the Harvard Nutrition Source because their newsletters are fabulous and always remain up to date with the most current nutrition information.

STEP 2: DETERMINE IF THE AUTHOR IS AN EXPERT ON THE TOPIC.

Can the author or the person being cited be considered an ‘expert’? If the author has credentials and qualifications, are the credentials relevant to the claims being made? If you’re unsure, look them up! Just because someone has many letters after his or her name doesn’t always mean they are legit. If you’re unsure of a credential, google it. For nutrition information, please try to source information that is being presented by a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) because RDNs are the food and nutrition experts.

Reminder: All RDNs have completed at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, a dietetic internship of at least 1200 hours of supervised practice, passed a certification exam, and take 75 continuing education credits every 5 years to maintain their credential. A nutritionist has no education requirement, no supervised practice, and no certification.

STEP 3: ASK FOR EVIDENCE. 

As a consumer you have the right to message whomever made a wacky claim for the research behind said claim. When asking for evidence, ask to read the peer-reviewed scientific papers. YouTube videos and blogposts do not counts as evidence. Be warry of articles that claim “one study found…” because this is often where fad diets originate. One study doesn’t paint a complete picture. When thinking about nutrition and public health guidelines, recommendations are based on hundreds of studies to avoid developing claims from outlier studies. Ideally, authors should be referencing systematic reviews and meta-analyses when making a health claim because these summarize all empirical evidence related to a research question.

STEP 4: EVALUATE IF THE EVIDENCE IS ANECDOTAL.

When a health claim or recommendation starts with “what works for me is…” this is a HUGE red flag! Anecdotes are only ever applied to individuals or individual experiences and are thus are subject to the biases that come with it. Therefore an individual anecdote is unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Do not assume something that worked for your colleagues sister will work for everyone.

STEP 5: DETERMINE IF THE CLAIM CONTRADICTS SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS.

Is this the first time that you have heard this claim and it contradicts everything you’ve ever heard about a topic? If so, proceed with caution. Scientific consensus is based on the accumulation of ALL the current available evidence. When one extraordinary claim goes against consensus, there needs to be A LOT of evidence to back it up.

STEP 6: IDENTIFY THE SOURCE OF THE ARTICLE- MEDIA OR JOURNAL.

When an outlier scientific paper is published that contradicts the scientific consensus, the media gloms on and LOVES it. For example, if one study found  a causal relationship between consuming walnuts and lowering your rates of cardiovascular disease the media will publish a headline saying something along the lines of “Eat Walnuts and Avoid Heart Disease!”. Then a new fad diet originates where people eat excessive amounts of walnuts. Often times what is written in the media is a massive extrapolation and exaggeration of the actually reported scientific findings and the limitations associated with said paper. I would suggest comparing the media headline and its content to the referenced papers title and abstract. If they don’t match up, feel confident you can trust the science over the media.

Scientific papers have an intensive vetting process to ensure legitimacy. These papers go through a peer-reviewing process, where other scientists (experts in the field) anonymously criticize flaws in a paper. Ultimately the reviewers determine if the paper is credible and worthy of publication or not. Having gone through this process, I can attest there are no niceties and every tiny flaw is scrutinized and attacked. This process is to ensure integrity and prevent dissemination of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views from influencing the science.

STEP 7: ASK AN EXPERT FOR HELP!

If you’re unsure the efficacy of a claim, reach out to someone who is an expert in the field for their opinion. When it comes to nutrition, by all means shoot me an email or DM and I’d be happy to guide you to the truth. If you know another scientist or registered dietitian nutritionist, ask him or her!

STEP 8: FOLLOW EXPERTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA!

The power of social media is huge. My recommendation to you is to follow some dietitians on social media to connect with them and see their views on emerging nutrition topics. Another benefit to connecting with experts on social media is you are able to message them directly and hopefully have a conversation in a less scientific manner. Some of my favorite Instagram nutrition accounts are:

  • @plantbased_pixie
  • @andytherd
  • @laurathomasphd
  • @eathealthy_eathappy

As you can tell by the title of my blog, Diets Debunked, I have a lot of fun busting nutrition myths and health claims and I hope I can inspire you to become a more skeptical reader, questions health claims, and assert your right to ask for evidence!

If you have an questions or comments, please let me know!

Happy Holidays!

Until next time.

Hannah

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