On Nutrition

Nutrition can be simple, but it can feel very confusing — especially if you have a health condition that could be affected by what you eat. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between who people trust for information on food, nutrition and health, and where they actually seek it out.

A recent consumer survey by NSF International found that only 1% of consumers trusted social media or celebrity endorsements the most for reliable information about health claims. But many do trust them. About half of people between ages 23 and 54 — Generation X and millennials — say they trust claims endorsed on social media, with about 40% trusting claims made by celebrities and other influencers.

That’s a problem. Our culture prizes health, thinness and youth — or at least the appearance of it. Celebrities face the pressure to conform to that ideal more than most, because their livelihoods depend on it. This makes them vulnerable to the allure of each “miracle” diet trend, regardless of how dubious the claims behind it may be. From Jennifer Lopez encouraging her followers to give up carbs, to Tom Brady talking about his super-restrictive diet, to Gwyneth Paltrow (where to even start?), celebrities appear to have it all figured out. But when they fall prey to bad nutrition and health advice, and their fans follow suit, the damage can be exponential.

And this does happen. Research out of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, found that only one in nine of the most popular nutrition and weight-management bloggers in the United Kingdom — each of whom had large social-media followings — provided credible, trustworthy information. Five bloggers provided no evidence-based information for nutrition claims or presented opinions as facts. The only medical doctor was not credible; the only blogger who was credible was a registered nutritionist in the U.K.

A recent article in the Canadian Journal of Bioethics, lead authored by Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian law professor and bioethicist who has taken particular aim at the rise of pseudoscience in health and wellness, discussed concerns about the spread of bad nutrition and health information in both traditional and social media. Unsurprisingly, people are increasingly seeking scientific information — including health and nutrition information — on social media, and increasingly willing to share personal health information online.

While “Dr. Google” and Facebook are free and accessible even at 2 a.m., there is a real cost to putting your trust in whatever you find there. Misinformation (“fake news”) can spread further, faster and wider. Unlike accurate information (the truth), inaccuracies can go viral. Some of this misinformation is utterly wrong, sometimes it’s overhyped — there’s a nugget of truth, but its importance or applicability to real humans is overstated. Some is simply pseudoscience — ideas or statements that claim to be scientific, and may even sound scientific, but are not based on credible scientific evidence or reality.


What can you do to fight back?

Consider the source. Be careful of “I heard” or “I read somewhere” even from people you know, like and generally trust if they don’t actually have expertise on the topic.

Don’t just read headlines. They are more likely to exaggerate a claim or new research finding than the actual article.

Remember that the more you see information repeated, even if it’s misinformation, the more likely you are to believe it. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

And if you’re curious about a nutrition claim (or nutrition-related health claim), email me. I might write about it in a future column!