Telling Fact from Fiction in Health News

Alex Lewis, Arivale Coach, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Alex Lewis
Arivale Coach, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

From news anchors to fitness magazines to a conversation you heard in the grocery store checkout line, nutrition and health advice is everywhere. This information overload can easily lead to confusion about what is truly healthy.

It’s important to have the knowledge necessary to determine if nutrition and health-related media content is valuable and based on credible research. Below we’ll discuss some important questions to ask yourself and points to keep in mind when evaluating news reports, magazine articles, websites, blogs, books, and those overheard conversations.

Who’s the author?

First thing’s first: Find out who wrote the information and what their credentials are. You can typically find this information in the “About” section of a website or at the end of a print article.

Then determine if the author’s credentials match the information. While this isn’t a dealbreaker–journalists, for instance, can write accurately on a wide-range of topics–it’s an added bonus and extra point toward credibility. For example, an article on neurosurgery techniques written by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist might warrant a bit more skepticism than one written by a neurosurgeon. As ever, critical-thinking skills are key.

Take caution if a webpage or article doesn’t have an author listed.

Who’s the publisher?

For websites, it’s a good idea to figure out who publishes it and if they’re reputable. The suffix on the domain name can give you more information. Education and government-funded websites­–.gov and .edu–are typically safe bets when it comes to sticking to the science. Of course, .org and .com sites can still be reputable but will require a more thorough analysis.

What’s the purpose?

Next, determine what the purpose of the information is. Was it created for educational reasons? Or, to sell a product? Was it written to persuade the reader? Does it present all sides of a story and the entirety of the evidence?

Is it too good to be true?

If the information sounds unrealistic or too good to be true, there’s a chance it is. For example, headlines like, “Lose weight without changing a single thing” or, “10 things to NEVER eat”. (The Wall Street Journal recently got taken to task for something like this when it ran the headline “The Food That Helps Battle Depression.”)

Check out Gut Check from the Federal Trade Commission for more examples of when to be cautious.

Is the science settled?

Science tends to move slowly. And, just because one study shows one thing doesn’t mean the scientific community has reached a consensus on the topic.

A news anchor or reporter often is not an expert on the subject matter and is typically reporting from a study’s press release, which is written from a marketing perspective in order to summarize the findings in the best possible light. This article from Vox discusses this point in further detail.

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