5 Red Flags to Look for in Online Nutrition/Fitness Content
Should you take vitamin C when you have a cold? Will ginseng improve memory? Is it better to work out in the morning or at night? For most of us, it is hard to know whether health-related information we find online is accurate. Messaging surrounding nutrition and fitness can be confusing and sometimes contradictory. This can end up being detrimental to our wellness. A study in the Journal of Health Communication revealed that exposure to conflicting news about the health benefits of certain foods, vitamins, and supplements often results in confusion and backlash against evidence-based nutrition recommendations.
To prevent the damaging effects of inaccurate or conflicting information, here are five questions to ask yourself when deciding if what you read should be taken to heart:
1. Are the authors true health “experts” or credentialed professionals?
A registered dietitian/nutritionist (RD or RDN), or a licensed dietitian/nutritionist (LD or LDN), has specialized expertise in dietetics, nutrition, public health or related sciences from an accredited university and is considered a nutrition expert. To become a registered dietitian, an individual must complete at least four years in a dietetics program at an accredited university, hold at least a bachelor’s degree, perform at least 1,200 hours of supervised practice, pass a national exam, and undertake extensive continuing education each year. In addition, many Registered Dietitians also hold master’s or advanced degrees and certifications. In the United States, terms such as “nutritionist” and “diet counselor” are not federally regulated. Depending on the state, individuals can call themselves a “nutritionist” with minimal or no qualifications.
A Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Health Fitness Specialist (HSP), or Exercise Physiologist (EP) are considered fitness experts. A CPT will work with personal training or group fitness, and must obtain certification from a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)-accredited organization, such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), or the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). An HSP typically works in a more advanced personal trainer role, serving clients that may have minor to moderate health considerations. An EP also has a clinical role, and provides exercise assessments, training, rehabilitation and lifestyle coaching for individuals at-risk for cardiovascular, pulmonary or metabolic events, as well as for healthy populations. The fitness industry is generally an unregulated sector, so it is important to seek advice and guidance from properly credentialed professionals.
2. Do the nutrition or fitness recommendations promise a “quick fix”?
Remember the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Claims that promise a quick fix or sound too good to be true should sound an alarm. True health behavior- change, whether it is weight loss, quitting smoking or exercising regularly, takes time – time to develop new habits, and time to see the positive effects of those habits. Recommendations that promise a loss of 30 pounds in a month or washboard abs in a few days, are likely based on false claims that are neither realistic nor sustainable. If you see “quick fix” claims, don’t bother reading further.
3. Are the headlines sensational without reference to research studies or field experts?
Headlines such as “Dark chocolate helps your heart get healthy” are exciting, however, without accompanying research studies or quotes from field experts, they can be misleading. Before stocking your pantry with chocolate bars in lieu of fruits and vegetables, make sure the advice you are following includes appropriate recommendations supported by valid sources. Hint: always look to see who sponsored or supported the research supporting the claims. For example, a chocolate manufacturer would certainly benefit from an article touting its health benefits.
4. Are the recommendations provided based on a single study? Or has a complex, robust, scientific report been over-simplified?
If sweeping changes are recommended and supported by a single study, or if a complex scientific report seems over-simplified, it is an indication that the authors do not have a clear understanding of the science behind the research and its relevance to general populations. Look for articles and resources citing multiple large-scale studies that support their recommendations. Conversely, if a robust scientific report has been whittled to a few simple takeaways such as “avoid red meat” or “do not consume dairy,” then the information has been oversimplified to a point that it is not truly accurate and should be avoided. Well-written and well-researched recommendations should provide at least an overview of the science behind them.
5. Is the website, individual, or company trying to sell you something?
If a site makes statements such as “Lose 15 pounds for just $9 a day,” know that the motivation here is to make money, and not necessarily to help you improve your health and well-being. When searching for valid content online, a general rule of thumb is to limit your search to sites that end in, “.gov” (indicating a government agency), “.edu” (indicating an educational institution such as a university) or “.org” (indicating a non-profit agency). Web pages that end in “.com” (indicating “commercial”) or “.net” (indicating “networks”) should be reviewed with caution.
Knowing how to navigate the web of nutrition and fitness information online and discern evidence-based recommendations from sensational claims can help consumers feel confident in setting goals and working towards better health.
For resources about healthy eating, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA’s My Plate, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or the Weight-control Information Network. For resources about physical activity, visit the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), or the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Wellness Workdays develops and implements wellness programs for organizations across the country. Our Registered Dietitians provide corporate wellness programs that improve employee health and well-being, increase productivity, and lower health care costs. Contact us to learn more.