March is National Nutrition Month, an annual campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There is a lot of bad, and sometimes even dangerous, advice swirling around the Internet when it comes to nutrition. These false claims and misinformation can make you feel that if you don’t follow their advice, you are doing something “bad” for your health. This can bring up feelings of shame and guilt, which can lead to disordered eating. Food trends, fad diets, health fraud, and false health claims are all types of nutrition misinformation.
Most people get their nutrition information from sources like websites, social media, TV shows, magazines, advertisements, or even friends and family, which creates ample opportunities for misinformation and health fraud. Health fraud is any misrepresentation of health claims, such as self-professed “medical experts” with claims to have discovered a so-called “miracle cure” with a food supplement or drug that is marketed with unsubstantiated health claims. Real, accurate nutrition information, on the other hand, is based in science, peer-reviewed, and replicable.
It can be challenging for the average consumer to discern valid nutrition information from misleading claims. There are three main types of nutrition misinformation:
Food trends and fad diets are restrictive diets and eating patterns that may lead to short-term weight loss but have no concern for long-term weight management or overall health. Fad diets become highly popular for periods of time and often have no scientific basis. They usually promote the idea that eating or not eating certain foods will help you lose weight and/or prevent or cure a disease. Diets such as the grapefruit diet and the low-carb diet craze are examples of fad diets and food trends.
Health fraud is similar except that it is usually intentionally misleading, mainly for profit. Diet programs that promise quick results and claims such as “the pounds will melt away” or a “miracle cure” product or supplement are examples of health fraud.
False health claims are ill-advised statements that lead consumers to believe a particular food is healthier than it really is. Misdirected health claims include food products claiming to be “low-fat” or “low carb,” but they are still high in calories or sugar, for example.
Watch for these red flags
When searching for diet advice and nutrition information, especially when using websites and social media pages, consumers should learn to spot legitimate nutrition information and to differentiate that from fraudulent claims. There are several red flags that should serve as a warning that what you are reading is not science-based and should not be taken as medical advice or as real and valid nutritional advice.
● The promise of a quick fix: “The X diet can help you shed 25 lbs. in one month without exercising.”
● Ominous warnings of danger from a single product: “Eating sugar will give you cancer.”
● Claims that sound too good to be true: “Eat low-fat cookies and lose 10 pounds.”
● Recommendations based on a single study, or simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study.
● Any list of good versus bad foods.
● Testimonials from celebrities or customers that are not science-based, or clearly show that the person has a monetary stake in the sale of the product. Examples are multi-level marketing diet programs or diet supplements.
How to find legitimate nutrition information online
Determining whether the information you’re reading on the web is true or fake is not easy. Separating fact from fiction on the vast Internet is a little more nuanced, but there are some clues and tips to help you weed out the junk.
● What comes after the dot?
Websites ending in .gov or .edu are more likely to be science-based and have legitimate experts behind them than websites ending in the regular .com.
● Always check the byline.
Make sure any nutrition articles you’re reading are written by a true health professional such as a registered dietitian, a physician, a registered nurse, or a Ph.D.
● Check the links.
Follow the links in the article to see their sources for their nutrition claims. If these websites are also credible, then you can usually rest assured you’re reading accurate information.
● Be skeptical of scare tactics.
Beware of claims that healthy foods are “toxic” or that your health will be in jeopardy if you don’t take a certain supplement. The use of exaggerated language like “miraculous,” “unprecedented,” or “revolutionary,” should be red flags.
● Steer clear of pressure tactics.
Avoid websites that pressure you to buy a product or program. “Advertorials” may look like real articles that contain nutrition information but are really just ads for a product or program in disguise.
● Do a deep dive.
Look deeper into the topic at hand. For example, look for testimonials from experts who aren’t being compensated to tout a product or program.
Remember that when it comes to nutrition information, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.