Separating Fact from Fiction in Nutrition: What Do You Believe to Be True?

When it comes to politics, and particularly now as elections draw near, you read and listen to stories of fake news all of the time.

And, over time, you probably have gotten good (but maybe not) at discerning the facts from the fiction. (I am better at evaluating news stories by looking at the URLs of websites, checking the sources of the information, etc.)

In my over 35 years as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I have never seen so much fake news when it comes to what to eat. Everyone is an expert and everyone is telling you about the “study” that promises longevity, good health and weight loss by consuming or not consuming “X.” With much focus on health and wellness, the media loves to write about food and health. Unfortunately, they don’t often have the knowledge or expertise and oversimplify results from a study. They sometimes take findings from an animal study and extend the results to adults. They often sensationalize findings from one study. You may remember the story that eating lunch meats is worse for you than smoking cigarettes. Not true! So, how does one know what to believe?

Let me start with a quiz. True or false? Carbohydrates are bad for your health.

If I provide you with the answer based on today’s scientific evidence, you might stop reading this blog, or you might want to send me a comment replying why I’m wrong (similar to what happens when there are political disagreements). Notice that I said, “today’s evidence.” Nutrition as a science is still fairly new. As we learn more, this new evidence-based information refines the recommendations. It seldom completely reverses the recommendation. Yet, there is still so much we don’t know about nutrition and health and for many claims, there are no evidence-based answers. This is one of the main reasons why it is easy to spread misinformation.

What does it mean when you read the word “evidence-based” in a statement about a nutrition recommendation? Simply stated (and it’s not simple), all of the available research on a topic conducted by different researchers is reviewed and evaluated for their study design and conclusions. When there is consistency among several large-scale studies, the conclusions are considered “evidence-based.” One study does not make a claim evidence-based.

Some claims come without the backing of any study; just a personal testimonial. If you read “eating gluten-free cured my cancer” there are no studies to back up this claim; just the testimonial. But, the book about it sure sells and more gluten-free products are purchased.

It is easy to make nutrition claims when there is no “evidence” for or against the claim. As a dietitian, I can’t say the claim is wrong if there is no evidence. I can just say, “there is no evidence for this claim.” If I were under oath and was asked, “Can you definitely say that this product won’t cure cancer,” I’d have to say, “no.” This provides more fuel to the fire for marketing this claim.

Critical-thinking skills helps cut through the hype. Through a practice of asking the right questions and healthy skepticism, you’ll be better equipped to know what to believe. Here are five questions to ask to evaluate a claim:

1. What is the original source of the study? Where was the study published? Was it a scientific journal?

2. Is the claim based on a single study (in a scientific journal) or have several studies come to the same conclusion? Reading the results of one study isn’t enough evidence to validate a claim.

3. Does it scare you? No single food causes disease. Labeling food as bad is far too simplistic when it comes to health

4. Is the promise too good to be true? No one food or food group has magic to cure or prevent disease. Labeling one food as powerful is too simplistic when it comes to health.

5. Is there a conflict of interest with the study/studies? Does the author of the study or claim have financial interest in the product or food it is recommending? If so, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is bias in the reporting, but it just means you should show some healthy skepticism.

Let’s go back to the claim about gluten-free curing cancer. There are no studies (today) in scientific journals that conclude that gluten-free cures cancer. If you read this claim and knew someone with cancer, you might ask them to stop eating gluten. Would it cause harm to follow this claim? In this case, maybe not because there are a lot of gluten-free products on the market and as long as the diet was adequate in all nutrients, it might be okay. But let’s look at the downside. That person would deprive him/herself the enjoyment of gluten-containing foods during a tough time in their life, and may likely have a higher food costs.

A claim may do no harm if the overall diet continues to be balanced, but claims often are in conflict with balance and may do more harm than good. Claims tend to eliminate foods or food groups or focus on specific foods or food groups. In either case, balance and overall nourishment is compromised. From the people I work with and talk to, following a false claim leads to “I can’t” and “I shouldn’t” and this deprivation is unfounded and sad to hear.

Don’t be duped. Use critical thinking and ask the questions listed above. Bottom line is the true, yet boring advice, “eat primarily a wholesome diet containing a variety of foods and be moderate with anything you eat.” *

* Always follow the dietary advice of your healthcare provider. Seek the services of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for nutritional advice.

Eileen Myers
Eileen Myers

Nutrition Expert, MPH, RDN, LDN, CEDRD, FAND

Eileen is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a BS from Penn State and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of North Carolina. She has received numerous awards for her work and has several publications including a book, “Winning the War Within: Nutrition Therapy for Clients with Eating Disorder.”

1 Comment
  1. Great writing Eileen I’m sickened by how many Outrageous claims of cures through crazy diets, supplements, food and beverage items are out there. People diagnosed with illnesses are at their most vulnerable place, and will try anything All they end up doing is lining the pockets of snake oil salespeople It all does more harm than good. Critical thinking is the key

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