Are you confused about what to eat when it comes to health? Do you want to lose weight but don’t know where to look, or what to believe? Does it seem like nutritionists are always changing their minds? Most people answer “Yes!” to at least one of these questions. If you’re aiming to create a more nutritious diet (or still trying to shed those pesky holiday pounds) but aren’t sure what’s true and what isn’t, then it might be time to clean up your newsfeed. Here are six steps to help you sort food fact from nutrition nonsense and focus on what really matters when it comes to diet.
Don’t fall for click bait
We all know what click bait is, and individuals and organizations alike make money each time someone jumps to the source. Read the article title critically: If it uses superlatives and seems like it’s just trying to catch your eye, just say no. And catchy headlines — which newscasters and publishers love — that sound too good to be true are often little more than hyperbole designed to grab your attention. Save your time and move on.
Beware of anecdotes
There is nothing more captivating than an engaging story, especially if it’s about someone you know. That’s why anecdotes are so powerful. Yet the individual experiences of just one person, even your best friend, mother or colleague, may not reflect what science has shown in carefully conducted studies among hundreds or thousands of people. That doesn’t necessarily mean their latest status update or share isn’t instructive for you, too. But it might be best to get a little more information about its scientific basis, and safety, before changing your diet.
Inspect the information source
The information revolution is a wondrous thing, but the sheer volume of places providing diet advice makes it difficult to differentiate science from junk science. Whether you get your food news from social media, television, books, newspapers, podcasts or wherever, you’ll want to take a careful look at the source. Who runs the website (or digital network), and what is its purpose? Are miracle cures or instant results promised? Are there links or references to other scientific studies that support the claims? Is private information requested from you, and if so, for what purpose? And think twice about the publisher’s politics and ethics: A great many “information” sources in today’s times are little more than partisan platforms for anti-science zealotry.
Check the credentials
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Valid news sources often employ science journalists, in which case you probably trust their veracity. Yet although nutrition is a biological science based in biochemistry, many of us rely on well-intentioned food bloggers, celebrity gurus, personal trainers and the like for nutrition guidance. What is their training? Do they possess a scientific credential or degree? If not, what qualifies them to give diet advice? And remember that medical doctors (MDs) are trained to treat disease, and many who have jumped on the nutrition bandwagon have little if any preparation. Others may be snake oil salesmen. In 2014, Dr. Oz was called out by fellow physicians as well as the U.S. Senate, on claims that he misled his viewers. While some physicians do have specific diet-disease knowledge within their specialty, you’re generally better off finding a highly qualified professional whose career and expertise are devoted to nutrition.
Get savvy about science
Most news stories, wherever they’re covered, are based on single-study sensationalism. While one study, if well conducted, is a better information source than one anecdote, a single experiment may yield nothing more than a promising hypothesis, perhaps even inconsistent with the bulk of extant knowledge. Savvy readers know that a critical step of science is replication. The findings of today’s study du jour may be fascinating, or even life-changing one day. But no singular study warrants a change in dinner plans until the experiment is repeated and results are consistent across many diverse settings and laboratories.
Seek expert consensus
By this point you may be surprised to find many fewer credible nutrition stories in your newsfeed, with far less contention. Indeed, the simple fact is that most people don’t realize that there is considerable consensus on how to eat to promote health, prevent disease and protect the planet: While all science evolves over time, the majority of experts today recommend consuming a plant-based diet bursting with vegetables, fruit, beans and nuts, whole grains and healthy oils and maintaining a healthy body weight. Advice like this seldom makes the news, however; it’s simply less exciting than today’s cutting-edge research or miracle diet flitting across your newsfeed. Yet it’s this evidence-based, expert advice from places like Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization that is based on many thousands of studies. And that’s exactly the kind of scientific consensus you’re looking for when creating a health-giving diet.