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Presently it is extremely difficult to know if nutritional facts are true and should be followed or not. Every second person has access to a blog and can post anything they want, be it true or false. As a dietician, this frustrates me immensely. Not only because people follow their dietary advice, but also because it can be detrimental to the health of people following the false information.

That is why I am writing this piece; the only way to empower is through knowledge! This piece aims to provide you with insight about when to believe information and when to be doubtful.

How to sort through misinformation. 
The Dieticians of Canada have five useful tips to keep in mind when evaluating nutritional information:

1.Is it promising a rapid fix?

Fast weight-loss, without any effort or a miracle cure for a chronic disease? Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of bad news; if it sounds ‘too good to be true’, then it likely is. I can think of numerous products to highlight this first point, but I don’t want to step on any toes…
Just to simplify, making lifestyle changes means a commitment to eating well and exercising regularly. You will not get a six-pack by putting a machine around your waist while watching television and eating burgers, nor will you lose weight by drinking a miracle pill before meals that ‘prevents the absorption of calories’.

2.Attempting to sell you a product.

You start reading a website article where they first explain a scenario, and the individual mentioned in it fits you like a glove. As you keep on reading, they emphasize the fact that they can help you ‘lose weight’, ‘achieve health’, ‘increase energy levels’ etc. Scrolling down there is a miracle product that just ‘melts the fat away’, ‘prevents the absorption of calories’, ‘decreases your appetite’ in some way science cannot even explain…
They caught you again. A good salesperson will never tell you if their product is not effective. They will lie by omission or worse, just straight-forward lying. They want profit and that means that you should buy their product.

3.Are they providing information based on individual stories rather than scientific facts?

I like to hear success stories as much as the next person, but that doesn’t mean that anecdotal evidence is trustworthy. Nutrition is a science and therefore all nutrition advice should be based on the best available scientific research. Different research designs give us different information. To interpret research, it requires understanding of research and study design:

  • Blind experiment — In this type of experiment, the participants don’t know which treatment they are getting. This prevents the “placebo effect” where participants expect the treatment to work and consequently it does.
  • Experimental group — The group who gets the treatment being studied.
  • Control group —The control group is treated in the same manner as the experimental group but do not receive the treatment being tested. This is important because it tests the effects of the treatment group versus non-treatment (control) group. In short; are the effects caused by the treatment or not?
  • Placebo — This is for example a ‘diet-pill’ filled with water. A placebo mimics the treatment and is used to test the psychological effect of being given the treatment. It could be a diet, a drink or even a fake treatment.

4.Are they basing a claim on a single study or only a few research studies?

Was the research conducted on animals or humans? If it was a human study; are you similar to the individuals included in the study (age, gender, ethnicity, BMI)? Athletes cannot follow nutrition advice that was conducted on non-athlete, sedentary participants.
Stronger study designs have more studies that also draw the same conclusions, that increases the likelihood that the evidence is true.

5.Is the person sharing this advice qualified?

You wouldn’t ask a celebrity to perform heart surgery, nor will you ask your neighbour to build a bridge. You would rely on a heart surgeon and engineer to complete those difficult tasks. The same thinking should apply for nutrition advice, look for credentials and a degree in Dietetics.

I hope that these tips will help you discern between unreliable nutritional information and evidence-based scientific information.
Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question!

References:Bellman, J. Staden, K. 2015. PEN® How do I help my clients sort through misinformation? Date of access: 2016/08/03

Written by: Retha Booyens (Registered Dietician)