How to Tell If the Health and Nutrition Information You're Reading Online is Actually True
From fake news to articles full of medical misinformation circulating around the internet, it's starting to feel pretty common to second-guess the headlines and articles you see online. We've seen a lot of this misinformation around COVID-19 and vaccines, and in general, the health and wellness world is full of less-than-qualified people touting incorrect health claims.
How do you really know if what you're reading is legit?
Let's get the bad news over with first: sifting fact from fiction is not as black and white as we'd like it to be. That said, there are few ways you can easily do a quick fact-check on the story, the facts in the article, and even the overall news source.
We won't go so far as to say we can prevent a family disagreement at the dinner table, but we feel confident we can at the very least lower your stress a little.
Here's how to find out if the nutrition and health info you're reading is actually true:
1. Look at what comes after the dot
As in, is the website ".com" or ".gov" or ".edu"? "Health and nutrition websites with a '.gov' or '.edu' extension likely have rigorous science and expert reviewers behind them," says Dina Aronson, M.S., RDN, Director of Nutrition Programming at Diet ID Inc., a digital diet assessment and behavior change platform. "Information written by a healthcare professional is usually, but not always, trustworthy."
2. Read the byline
All articles should have an author listed. And if that don't, that's a red flag. Who wrote the piece—is it a health professional (think: registered dietitian, registered nurse, medical doctor or Ph.D.?) or is it reviewed by someone with those credentials? If so, you should be in good hands.
3. Follow the links
Click on those linked articles and, at the very least, scan them. If the referring websites are also credible (more on that below, of course), then the content you're reading should be legit. That said, read a few snippets of that linked content and their sites: are they credible, but most importantly, does the information they link out to match what is touted in the original source? For instance, if article "A" says that apples help you jump rope faster and higher, does the linked resource actually talk about mice jumping rope faster and higher or is it about kids at the playground after they ate applesauce?
4. Beware of scare tactics
If the nutrition information alludes to some habits as verboten, proceed with caution. "Stating that perfectly healthful foods are 'toxic' or that without a certain product or supplement, your health is in danger, steer clear," says Aronson. Similarly, hyperbolic language like "unprecedented," "revolutionary," or "miraculous," should all be warning signs, advises Aronson.
And also: "If the site pressures you to buy a product or program, or gives you a short window of time to buy at a discount, move along," says Aronson.
5. Read between the research lines
The advice you're reading should be supported by science. "The information should be backed by research, not testimonials," says Aronson. "Listen to your gut. If something sounds too good—or weird—to be true, it probably is." But also, don't hesitate to do a touch of your own fact-checking. We here at EatingWell rely on evidenced-based information to back up the claims in all of our articles, so search for the topic here and if we don't have something on it, another great, credible resource that's fairly easy to navigate is the National Institute of Health website, Medline Plus.
6. Go deeper, if time is on your side
Dig into those who are quoted or authoring the studies. "Look for impartial experts over those compensated by the food or supplement industry for their expertise," says Aronson. The ideal situation is to find an expert quoted that is neutral. Full disclosure: this can be challenging (and we do our best as a publisher, but the honor system is, well, the honor system).
Sorry to say, but overall, if it's too good to be true, it's not true. Here's why: "If unbelievable claims about fast weight loss or quick fixes were true, we'd all be slender and healthy," says Aronson.
And nothing guarantees that what you're reading is 100 percent credible, indefinitely. David Katz, a medical doctor and public health expert, has a great analogy: oxygen. Oxygen can be good or bad for us. "There is oxygen in Earth's atmosphere—good for us and essential to our minute-by-minute survival; there is pure oxygen (can be good in the short term, but lethal in a span of hours or days); there is oxygen in water (again, essential for survival); there is oxygen in carbon dioxide (tolerable within strict limits, and a gas we need to breathe out rather than in); and there is oxygen in carbon monoxide (a rapid-acting, lethal poison to us). So, is oxygen good or bad? Yes. The question? Bad, pointless, distracting and vapid," says Katz in a self-published article.