5 Ways to Identify Health Misinformation

On Monday, one source says carbohydrates cause weight gain and wreak havoc on the body; another says they are your body's preferred source of energy and should be consumed with a balanced diet. Two days later, you read that artificial sweeteners contribute to everything from cancer to weight gain, but another website has a trending article all about how those same sweeteners have been proven to be safe and are even beneficial to those trying to lose weight.
Conflicting information online seems to be the new normal. Here you are just trying to find credible advice that will help you improve your health and wellbeing and you end up having to be a detective to separate fact from fiction.
The power of social media and peer influence cannot be underestimated in the case of "fake news." With the click of a few buttons, compelling misinformation can spread like wildfire. The wildfire occurs for a number of reasons, one being that the sharer of the information simply doesn't know that they're sharing false information. While most people have good intentions in sharing health information at the watercooler or posting on their newsfeed, the sheer volume of new studies, reports, research media outlets and blogs increases the incidence for error substantially.  
Sensationalism is also at play here. The act of misrepresenting or "blowing out of proportion" a notion or fact in an effort to boost shares, views or to sell a product can lead people to believe ideas that are not 100 percent accurate. The article could be mostly fluff, but still gets shared widely due to a catchy headline or image that touches on people's pain points, such as wanting to lose weight. 

Become a Misinformation Sleuth

Arming yourself against sensationalism or the innocent, but misguided advice of family or friends is key in ensuring that you stay the course and arrive at your weight-loss goal through the healthiest, most efficient means possible. With a few quick tips and some smart strategies, you can keep yourself from falling victim to quick fixes, conflicting information and ultimate frustration.

1. Is the person or product promising a quick fix? Any article that promises fast weight loss results without a legitimate training plan, a loophole or a miracle cure should immediately raise eyebrows. If it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is. Making changes to your health means a commitment to eating well and exercising regularly.
2. Is the information being delivered by a credible source? Before clicking on a link, look at where the source of the information is coming from and evaluate if that source is recognized as either an expert in the specific field or a trusted health website or authority. For example, an article about heart health from the American Heart Association is probably a safe bet.
Keep in mind, though, that some experts go outside of their scope of practice when giving recommendations, which is not okay if they haven't had significant training in that area. Think about it: You wouldn't ask a real estate agent how to build a safe bridge; you'd ask a professional engineer. The same thinking should apply to nutrition advice. Unfortunately, just because an Instagram star or celebrity is popular and has the power to go viral, it doesn't mean that the information they're providing is credible and accurate. Dig a little deeper and ask for credentials before accepting it as the real deal.
3. Is the information based on anecdotes and personal stories rather than on facts? While we all love a good success story, one person's method isn't always going to be proof that something works for everyone. Take personal stories with a grain of salt and do some investigating before you dive into their specific training or nutrition plan. Nutrition advice especially should be based on the best available scientific research.
4. Correlation does not equal causation. Put simply: Just because one study showed that there might be a link between X (insert food or behavior) and Y (insert cancer, weight loss, etc.), does not necessarily mean that X caused Y. There are numerous factors that could influence the result of a study. Researchers try to control this as much as possible, but depending on the type of study, all factors cannot always be controlled. This is an area where it can be especially easy for the media or a person to take the results of one study and blow it out of proportion to suit an agenda. Be careful to educate yourself on the complexities of correlation and causation by reading up on them here and here
5. All research studies are not created equal. Research helps shape our society, and health studies specifically are designed to answer questions on how to prevent, diagnose or treat diseases or disorders. Many types of research studies exist, some which are considered to give a higher quality of evidence. Learn how to identify the type of study cited, ranked here by those that are most credible down to those that should be taken with a grain of salt.
  • Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews. These types of studies combine the findings from many individual studies to help show the bigger picture. Systemic reviews also critically assess and evaluate the research. These are considered the gold standard when they include Randomized Controlled Trials with definitive results into their summary of studies. 
  • Randomized Controlled Trials. This controlled clinical trial randomly assigns participants to two or more groups. To account for as many factors as possible, researchers use various methods including designating a control group or ensuring that both participants and researchers are "blind" to which group a participant is in.
  • Cohort Study. Also known as a prospective observational study, this clinical research study includes people who presently have a certain condition or receive a particular treatment. These studies are good for showing potential links, but more research is usually needed because there are always factors that cannot be controlled due to the nature of the study.
  • Case-Control Study. These studies do not follow people over time. Researchers choose people with a particular result and interview the groups or check their records to discover and evaluate their varied experiences. 
  • Cross-Sectional Study. Here, researchers observe a defined population and a specific topic at a single point in time or time interval, and make observations. 
  • Case Reports and Series. This simply shows a report on a series of patients with an outcome of interest. No control group is involved.
  • Ideas, Editorials, Opinions. These are the pieces of information that most often go viral, and many of them contain misinformation. It's important when taking away advice from these types of articles, to ensure that the person writing it has a strong background in that specific area, and that they are using credible sources when making recommendations. 
In addition to the methodology of how the study was conducted on how large a sample size and more, be sure to also consider the importance of the following factors.
  • The journal in which the study was published. The easiest way to know if a journal is credible or not, is to find out if it's "peer-reviewed" by third-party experts that have no direct connection to the journal, and its "impact factor" (IF). An IF above one is usually considered okay, but the closer to the max 30 the better. Typically you can find all of this information on the site of the journal in question or by doing a quick Google search.
  • Reproducibility. Even when a study uses high-quality methodology, it is an important part of the research process to ensure that a study's results can be reproduced to prove that researchers paid due diligence to the research process and methods. This is just another layer to ensure that a study's results are strong, and that recommendations are being made on the best quality evidence. 
  • The larger body of evidence, or the "bigger picture," must be taken into account. For any given research topic there are typically many pieces to the puzzle, as you can imagine. Look for guidelines put out by large health bodies, such as the American Diabetes Association or the American Heart Association that typically use that aforementioned golden systemic review format. These guidelines are typically communicated by health professionals because they can translate scientific evidence and guidelines into understandable, practical terms for the public. 
While all this talk about evidence and research can get quite overwhelming and maybe even boring for the general public, it's never been more important to adopt some critical thinking skills when it comes to the information we read and hear every day. When in doubt, turn to a trusted expert with credentials—a doctor for medical advice, registered dietitian for nutrition help or a certified personal trainer for fitness guidance—or a website that relies on those same trusted experts to provide advice.  
The internet can be a gift and a curse when it comes to getting healthy, but with the right mindset, the right tools and a little sleuthing, you can navigate the path to weight loss smoothly.