How to Identify Nutrition Misinformation and Pseudoscience
The health and wellness industry continues to grow every year, yet is also riddled with pseudoscience and nutrition misinformation. What is pseudoscience? Pseudoscience is a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method. However, these practices are not evidence-based at all.
This misinformation infiltrates our daily lives in the news, social media, advertising, books, and websites. It is often represented by wellness brands, influencers, celebrities, and unqualified individuals claiming to be experts.
We want to surround ourselves with evidence-based information that aligns with our health values. So how do we weed out what is health promoting, evidence-based information AND not waste our money?
How to Combat Misinformation
Let’s talk about the red flags – these are things to look out for that often indicate misinformation. They can indicate the person sharing the information is unqualified to be doing so or they have the sole goal of making money off the consumer regardless of their product, service, or program.
Red Flag 1: Speaking in Absolutes
Using an “all or nothing” approach can be a sign someone is misrepresenting information. They make claims that the product, service, program, or information is fact, proven, or the only way to achieve a specific health outcome. In research, methods are tested, and an accumulation of results are gathered to represent the most common outcome. There is no such thing as scientific proof. There are, however, clinically relevant research results.
Red Flag 2: Fear Mongering
Fear mongering can present in many ways. A common example is calling a product or food “toxic” without providing ANY supporting information. Another example is putting foods into categories such as “The Dirty Dozen” and labeling them as harmful without supporting evidence. A third example is claiming products or foods are “cancer causing” or saying certain foods “will kill you.” The goal is scaring you into heeding the advice!
Red Flag 3: Using Chemical Names for Common Foods
This can be a form of fear mongering. A common statement heard in the wellness world is “Don’t buy products if you can’t pronounce the ingredients.” Nutrition, like many other health fields, is based in chemistry, and in chemistry everything is a chemical! For example, the term “dihydrogen monoxide” may sound scary, but this is the chemical name for water (H2O). Just because it may not be a commonly recognized term does not necessarily make it harmful.
Red Flag 4: Sounds Too Good to be True
If a product is claiming to cure a disease, produce overnight results, or help you lose a significant amount of weight in a very short time period, it’s unlikely any of these claims are backed by evidence.
Red Flag 5: Representing a Function that Does Not Actually Exist
Often wellness brands or diet programs will try to sell you a product for a non-existent function. The “Detox” or the “Cleanse” diets are two prime examples. There is no such thing as consuming a product or food to detoxify the body. Consuming something that “clears out the system” is more likely to cause damage to your gut microbiome than provide any health benefit. Fortunately, we have two wonderful organs—the kidneys and the liver—that handle the removal of unwanted substances from the body. As long as they remain healthy, they will do all the cleansing needed.
Another great example of a false claim based in pseudoscience is the idea of “alkalizing the body,” or consuming foods or beverages of a certain pH with the goal of changing our body’s pH. You can drink as much alkaline water as you like but the minute it hits your highly acidic stomach, the pH changes—long before it reaches your blood stream.
Red Flag 6: Selling Themselves
How often do you see a fitness influencer or celebrity promoting a product, service or program? They are often using genetic thinness or fitness to try to sell the idea “Do what I do, and you will look like me.” Having a genetically thin or fit body does not mean they have the credentials to understand the science behind a product.
Red Flag 7: Do they have any credentials?
There are many spreaders of pseudoscience out there. Some are well-meaning but under qualified, some intend to make a profit at any expense, and some are stepping outside of their scope of practice or expertise. Individuals who use terms such as nutrition coach, personal trainer, fitness trainer, nutrition consultant, holistic nutritionist, influencer or celebrity (with no nutrition science credentials at all) are not qualified to give nutrition information or recommendations. Look for the term Registered Dietitian or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or a PhD in Nutrition.
Red Flag 8: Contradictions and Product Pushers
Watch for contradictory messaging. A brand or person that promotes ideals such as “clean eating” and eliminating all processed foods but simultaneously supports highly processed and often unregulated supplements is contradicting their own messages to help sell products.
Red Flag 9: No Sources Cited
If something is not supported by any evidence, it can be immediately disregarded. Be skeptical until you see the research! You do not need to waste time “de-bunking” something that has no scientific support.
Red Flag 10: Beware of the Cherry Picker
Sometimes a person trying to promote their products or programs will select some obscure studies to use as “evidence” to support their point. These studies may be based on a very specific population, a small sample size, sometimes done on mice or even in a test tube! Often the results of the study are misinterpreted to better support their point. These cherry pickers are using self-affirming bias, only sharing information that supports their opinion and disregarding any evidence that does not.
Red Flag 11: Preaching “Don’t Trust the Man”
This is common among nutrition misinformation spreaders. They often preach ideals that do not align with the generally accepted recommendations or those that are supported by large bodies of evidence. They may encourage you not to trust what is generally accepted or promoted by credentialed experts.
Enough about the red flags, let’s talk about the green flags. How do you identify accurate or valid nutrition-based information?
Green Flag 1: Check Their Credentials
Make sure the person sharing information is reputable. Even if they have a vast following, they may not be qualified and could easily be spreading misinformation to the masses!
Green Flag 2: The Tone
The person sharing the information does not speak in absolutes. They use terms like “may” or “some studies have shown.” They speak in unbiased or objective statements and do not insert their opinion. They are often willing to discuss potential opposing opinions and shortcomings. They are able to define and explain what they mean without fear mongering.
Green Flag 3: Sources are Cited
The information provided should be supported by evidence in the form of peer-reviewed scientific research—not books, documentaries, shows, opinion articles, social media or word of mouth. The research is cited in a way it can be looked up, such as showing the title and abstract of the paper in a social media post. It is relevant to the population and represents a clinically significant or relevant outcome. If the research is available, read it yourself.
Body weight and many health conditions are multifactorial and cannot be caused or cured by a single nutrient, food group or supplement. If the evidence to support something is strong enough, no one will feel the need to guilt trip you, scare you or walk around shirtless in a grocery store to sell their point. The health and wellness industry, like many other business models, is designed with the goal of generating returning customers.
When taking on any new lifestyle change always ask yourself – is this something I can maintain forever? If the answer is no, it may be a tactic to keep you stuck in the cycle looking for the next best product or program.
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