Happy New Year! It’s officially the time of year where our news feeds are inundated with diet hacks, detox plans and juice cleanses. Unfortunately, many of these promising solutions fall short in evidence-based science. Worse, some misguided advice can even be harmful to our health (but, if you are looking for realistic health resolutions, check out my article here).
While the internet offers incredible access to educational resources, it also provides an open platform for misinformation. Social media, in particular, thrives off user engagement regardless of accuracy and is therefore a breeding ground for misinformation. In fact, the unique challenge of nutrition misinformation and its impact on practice was recently published in The Journal of Nutrition.
“This emergence of mistruths can create a momentum powerful enough to shape perceptions of food, nutrition, and diets, and the scope and scape of this problem and its impact on the public and public health are still largely unknown.”Diekman et al. 2022.
So, where does nutrition misinformation come from? How can we spot it? Let’s explore this.
Photo by Tim Samuel from Pexels
Misinformation vs Disinformation
First, I think it’s important to address how misinformation is different than disinformation. Both misinformation and disinformation are forms of inaccurate information. Misinformation doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice, but often stems from some truth that is misrepresented, taken out of context or exaggerated beyond its evidence – think a misleading headline. Disinformation, however, is a form of misinformation that is intended to deceive and is often influenced by political stakes or profit – think a deliberate smear campaign against a food or product that is funded by an interest group. Both are equally harmful and hurt our ability to make informed decisions regarding our health. For the purpose of this article, I won’t be the judge of intent and simply refer to both as misinformation.
Where does health misinformation come from?
Image from Pexels
Thanks to open-access journals, we’re easily able to read thousands of scientific studies (or at least their abstracts). However, the strength of evidence varies considerably by things like study design (case study vs. randomized controlled trial vs. meta-analysis) and publication (peer-reviewed journal vs. newspaper vs. opinion piece). So, just because a claim has a citation doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “evidence-based.” A few examples are below:
Cherry picking: aka incomplete research. This often stems from confirmation bias when authors find studies that support their claim while withholding (knowingly or unknowingly) conflicting evidence.
- Case study: The Game Changers documentary. The film relies on studies and testimonials that support vegan health benefits, while grossly ignoring conflicting bodies of research.
Relative risk: one of my favorite fallacies. Relative risk is an arbitrary measurement that simply can’t be interpreted without knowing the absolute risk.
- Case study: An extra serving of bacon increases bowel cancer risk by 18%. Sounds scary. But when the absolute risk of bowel cancer for the general population is 6%, we can then calculate that eating an extra slice of bacon increases risk of bowel cancer from 6% to 7%. Not as scary.
Misleading headlines: press release stories are rarely written by the authors from the actual research study. Clickbait headlines often exaggerate findings in order to grab attention and increase sharing. Unfortunately, many of us don’t read beyond the headlines.
- Case study: a 2021 study found that on average, humans may consume between 0.1-5 grams of microplastics weekly – it’s a big range and not particularly sexy. However, this video shows how over time (and poor reviews and journalism) this result morphed into headlines like “You’re eating a credit card’s worth of plastic a week” – now that will grab your attention!
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc by Pexels
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin
The Dunning Kruger Effect
I recently read Adam Grant’s Think Again (highly recommend) which dives into the power of recognizing and even capitalizing on what we don’t know. One phenomenon he covers is called the Dunning Kruger Effect.
- Dunning Kruger Effect – we often overestimate knowledge about a topic when we only know a little bit about it, but as we master the subject through education and research, we grow an appreciation for its complexity and nuances, and therefore underestimate our knowledge.
As a result of this effect, many undereducated but overconfident people (ahem influencers) don’t have the experience to spot their “blind spots” and continue to perpetuate their truth, attracting more followers with their compelling narratives. On the flip side, many true experts may not recognize what they bring to the table, because they’re so highly aware of what they don’t know. This means we’re often left with the loudest voices and not necessarily the most accurate information.
- A wellness influencer takes one nutrition course and gives medical nutrition therapy advice – e.g. how to cure inflammatory bowel disease with lemon juice water (btw, there’s no cure for IBD).
- A ripped TikTok star promotes the ancestral diet of raw organ meat as his secret to a muscular physique – when in reality it’s just good old fashioned exercise and steroid use.
- A celebrity finds weight loss success in cutting out certain food groups and therefore demonizes them as unhealthy – e.g. how grains are making us fat and sick.
- A (non-nutrition-focused) celebrity physician claims a very specific diet is best for everyone – e.g. the carnivore diet is the next best thing that will change your life forever (yes, unfortunately many MDs receive little to no nutrition education).
How to spot misinformation
Image from Pixabay
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan
- No references or weak ones (reliance on testimonials)
- Sensationalism – one food/nutrient is the detriment or the savior of our health
- False dichotomies (vegan vs. carnivore, organic vs. non-organic, low-fat vs. low-carb – it’s never that simple)
- Eliciting a strong emotional response (fear, distrust, anger)
- Conspiracy theory undertones (no, the government or food industry isn’t trying to poison you)
- Aggressively pushing supplements
- Shouting (why do they shout?)
- References to scholarly sources – look for things like PMID numbers
- Credentials – PhD, MD, RD, MS (this list is not full proof, but it helps)
- Openly recognizing what they don’t know, accepting that “the research is limited” or referencing others who know the topic better than they do
- Acknowledging when they have changed their belief about something – in my opinion, a telltale sign of integrity and professional growth
- Neutral voice
Why this matters
Nutrition misinformation is a sensitive topic, but an important one. Misleading claims and messaging can considerably harm our most vulnerable. For example:
- Promoting raw milk as superior to normal milk (spoiler – it’s not better but can actually carry harmful bacteria) can have dangerous consequences for folks who are older, pregnant or immune-compromised.
- Pitching a miracle Alkaline Diet can lead a desperate cancer patient to forego traditional medical treatment (spoiler – the Alkaline Diet is bogus and its founder served prison time for it).
- Shaming non-organic foods and calling them toxic (spoiler – they’re not) can keep families with tight grocery budgets from purchasing nutritious foods.
- Claiming cow’s milk is inflammatory (spoiler – it’s not and can even be anti-inflammatory) can cause a worried parent to unnecessarily remove it (and its essential nutrients) from their children’s diet.
Health professionals have their work cut out for them, stepping up to be the voices of reason and advocates for science in this saturated space of health and wellness advice. In the meantime, I encourage us all to be good stewards of information. Call it as you see it, read beyond the headline of the article before liking or sharing it, question things that don’t sound right, and report false or harmful messaging.
p.s. curious about fact-checking a popular health or nutrition book? Red Pen Reviews may have already done the work for you.