How to Spot Nutrition Nonsense in 6 Easy Steps

 
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It’s no secret that there are some very sketchy pieces of information out there relating to nutrition and health. In today’s world, the rise of the confident #InstaInfluencer, how easy it has become to put together a sleek professional website, and the fact that almost anyone can call themselves a ‘nutritionist’ (unfortunately this title still isn’t protected or reserved with those who do have years of formal education and experience) means that a lot of the nutrition misinformation out there looks and sounds very appealing so many. Nutrition quackery can be defined as the promotion (for financial gain) of devices, treatments, services, plans, or products claimed to improve health, well-being, or appearance without proof of safety or effectiveness [1]. Pseudoscience is fake science, usually dressed up very carefully to look as though it’s the real deal when it actually lacks a strong evidence base [2]. What’s really concerning is that usually the pseudosciencey (not a real word, but bear with me) claims out there may have a small ounce of truth to them, which makes them seem pretty plausible. The thing is that usually this ounce of truth is a half-truth, and the rest of the story is left out of the picture. Needless to say, it can be really easy to get caught up in the pseudoscience and nutrition nonsense out there, sometimes even to the detriment to your wallet and health, so I want to share a few things that you can add to your tool-kit as you try and navigate the realm of nutrition and health.

6 steps to help you spot nutrition nonsense

 
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1. Look out for red flags

There are a few ‘red flags’ that you can be on the lookout for that are often used by those peddling nutrition nonsense (whether they realise it or not). When these things are shared, put on your skeptic and don’t be afraid to question the truth behind them.

  • Words like ‘detoxifying’, ‘natural’, ‘superfood’

  • Sensationalist claims

  • People casting doubt on scientists and health professionals: There are many people in the general public who have a distrust of scientists and healthcare professionals, possibly because they have been disappointed by those within the healthcare field before. The thing is that more often than not, those sharing messages of nutritional quackery exploit this distrust by misrepresenting professional motives (anyone else heard the line: “Why would doctors want to help you get better if they can keep making money off you whilst you’re still sick”). Yes, health professionals and scientists aren’t always 100% correct and it’s not a bad idea to ask them the same questions and requests for evidence that I highlight in this post, but it is also not fair that the distrust spread by those spreading nutritional nonsense attempts to discredit any and all scientific evidence and recommendations shared by qualified people.

  • Quick, miracle cures and solutions: Anyone promising a quick, simple answer to what is often a fairly complex problem is playing into what you (and others) want to hear rather than what is true. Just to illustrate using a few crude examples - there is no nutritional supplement out there that can miraculously cure diabetes, chronic fatigue, and reflux (if there is one that claims to do so, make sure to do your research to see what the evidence has to say); and as much as people want to hear that they can lose X kilograms in less than a week, any product or plan that claims to help you do so is not safe or sustainable in the long-run (skinny tea anyone?).

  • Black-and-white statements: Things like ‘sugar causes cancer’, ‘blueberries prevent Alzheimer’s disease’, and ‘gluten is toxic’. The reality is that in the world of nutrition science, we really don’t have any definitive evidence to back any of these statements up. A credible nutrition expert will say things along the lines of “The polyphenolic compounds found in blueberries have been shown to possess antioxidant properties and may aid in the prevention of cognitive decline in diseases such as Alzheimer’s” (very different kind of claim here) [3].

2. Check qualifications

Nutrition is a hot subject area at the moment, which unfortunately means that everyone (and their cat) seems to be an ‘expert’. Having 100K followers doesn’t make someone a nutrition expert, nor does having a degree in medicine or in molecular biology. Just like I wouldn’t trust someone with a MSc in Anatomy to deliver my baby, or someone who likes animals to treat my sick dog or cat, I would be careful about where you are sourcing your nutrition information from. Even within the specialist area of nutrition, RDs and RNutrs can become experts in a very niche area of nutrition and won’t know absolutely everything about every area of nutrition.

As one of my followers mentioned on the Instagram post that I did on this topic, it’s worth asking things like:

  • What qualifications do you have?

  • In what subject area? If nutrition, what kind of background in the area of nutrition do they have?

  • Do you really understand this subject / niche area of nutrition? Are they speaking from within their area of expertise?

  • How do you stay up to date with the latest research?

  • What kind of regular CPD do you do?

  • Is anyone regulating them or making sure that the information that they share and their practice stays within the standards of ethical practice?

3. Ask for evidence

Seriously, ask people for the evidence behind their claims and don’t take everything at face value. Just because someone uses fancy medical jargon and seems like they have their life sorted, it doesn’t mean that they’re speaking truth based on sound evidence. As Pixie Turner mentions in Laura Thomas’ book:

 
...if they respond with their evidence, that’s a good start; if the shift the burden of proof (I.e. ask you to prove them wrong), that’s bad
 

A person should be able to back credible statements up with good, peer-reviewed science, and preferably research conducted in humans (not rats or cell models). Those peddling nutrition nonsense can often get blinded by the science, cherry-pick the evidence, and skew information that they share for their own gain. It is worthwhile doing a bit of digging when studies are cited, and ask questions like:

  • What type of study / paper is this? Is it an observational study? An RCT? A systematic review or meta-analysis?

  • Was it a well-designed study?

  • What was the size of the test group?

  • Was there a control group in this study?

  • What journal was this published in?

  • Have the findings been reviewed by other experts?

  • Who funded the study?

  • What evidence preceded this study? How does it compare to these results?

4. be wary of anecdotes

Be wary of those who tend to only use anecdotes to back up what they have to say. As humans we love to connect with others who have a similar story or struggle to ourselves, and can find real support and community through sharing our stories. Anecdotes (stories of personal experiences) do have some value, BUT when anecdotes are used to support how food/diet X cured condition Y, they should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Anecdotes can help form ideas and hypotheses that can be tested using rigorous scientific methods, but on their own they’re not an example of good evidence. This is because humans are great at making links between things that aren’t actually connected, so although your favourite blogger may have found relief from a condition by cutting out certain foods, there is a good chance that other lifestyle factors had a role to play, making it impossible to tease out the actual effect of dietary change.

On the topic of using anecdotes, be wary of influencers with lots of followers share testimonials (things like ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of weight-loss, or claims that they have been cured of something) alongside a product, even if the affiliation is disclosed. In the world of social media people receive loads of freebies and money in exchange for testimonials like this, many of which are fabricated in some way. The individual's’ results are not compared to any control group or subjected to a proper scientific method, so to assume that the success of a product will produce the same results for you shouldn’t be expected.

I’m including The Rooted Project’s great infographic on the Hierarchy of Evidence here so that hopefully 3 & 4 will make a little bit more sense.

5. be skeptical

To be skeptical: not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations. Seriously, be skeptical of things like broad sweeping statements relating to nutrition. Don’t take everything you read as truth, especially anything that oversells the impact of nutrition/food on health. Does this sound familiar? ‘A peach a day keeps cancer away 🍑’. This is just one of many sweeping statements that are made on a daily basis out there on the internet. It’s really easy to do a PubMed search and find some kind of study to back a statement like this up, but the thing is, it’ll most likely have been conducted in rats or cell models using super high concentrations of a very specific compound found in peaches (a far cry from what we’d ever consume on a daily basis). Be skeptical of simplistic conclusions drawn from complex studies, and black-and-white solutions to very complex problems.

6. beware of fear-mongering language

Be wary of those who make you feel guilty or bad about what you choose to eat. Seriously, no food is going to make or break your health. Black-and-white statements about certain foods being “toxic” need to be shut down, especially when they are not backed up by evidence (see point 3). If you are being told by someone that you need to eliminate a food group, as an example, gluten or dairy foods, this raises a red flag. A healthy diet will allow foods from all the food groups. When we eat foods from a wide variety of sources, without crazy restrictions, we allow our bodies to obtain the right combination of important vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein, fat, carbohydrates, antioxidants and phytochemicals that are needed to stay healthy. I love what Rachael Hartley has to say in her blogpost “How to Detox Your Brain After a Fear-Mongering Documentary”, written in response to What the Health (which aired on Netflix a couple of years ago):

 
Take a step back and look at the big picture of your eating. If you regularly eat plant-based meals, include veggies and grains in your meals, and generally eat a wide variety of foods, it’s highly unlikely you’re eating enough animal food to be harmful. If you cook at home, don’t guzzle soda or sugar sweetened beverages all day, snack on a variety of whole foods as well as some convenience snacks, and aren’t restricting sugar (which we know triggers overconsumption), then it’s highly unlikely you’re eating enough sugar to be harmful … Just because there’s some shred of truth in the documentaries, that doesn’t mean we have to take eating to an extreme
— Rachael Hartley
 

References

[1] Mussatto C. 10 ways to be an expert at spotting nutrition quackery. Eat Well to Be Well RD [Internet]. 2015 Sep 2 [cited 2019 Mar 13]. Available from: https://eatwelltobewellrd.com/10-ways-to-be-an-expert-at-spotting-nutrition-quackery/

[2] Willingham E. 10 Questions To Distinguish Real From Fake Science. Forbes [Internet]. 2012 Nov 8 [cited 2019 Mar 13]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2012/11/08/10-questions-to-distinguish-real-from-fake-science/#132292f1146c

[3] Whitney E. How to Spot A Quack: 5 Signs A Nutrition “Expert” Isn’t Trustworthy. Whitney E RD [Internet]. 2018 May 8 [cited 2019 Mar 14]. Available from: https://www.whitneyerd.com/2018/05/quack-nutritionists.html