We'd all like to be healthier. We wish we exercised more and ate better. Some of us even begin to make changes in our lives to accomplish this goal, but we may not be as effective as we like if we aren't gathering the best information.
Finding reliable nutrition information can be quite the challenge in this age of information overload. Everyone knows you can't believe everything you read or hear about nutrition, but we all fall prey to believing the last factoid we have seen or heard.
It's well known that the Internet is full of both factual and fallacious information. So how do you find reliable information and differentiate it from the anecdotal, misinterpreted, designed-to-sell-you-a-product, downright false stuff?
Television, magazines, and the Internet were named as top information sources, while medical professionals, including doctors and dietitians were less likely to be consulted.
Let's do some exploring and see if we can find a way to decipher all the information and determine the best sources of credible, science-based nutrition information.
One way to gather information is to seek out a professional for nutritional advice. But this is not as straightforward a solution as it might seem. There are considerable differences in training among the people who hang out their shingles offering nutritional help, and it pays to know the background of the person from whom you seek nutritional advice.
There are considerable differences in training among the people who hang out their shingles offering nutritional help, and it pays to know the background of the person from whom you seek nutritional advice.
Most states regulate dietitians or nutritionists through licensure, certification, or registration. The laws differ from state to state and some are stricter than others. Some states will allow the use of the title "nutritionist" by noncertified individuals, but not the title "dietitian." Other states regulate both titles.
Confused? Don't be. Regardless of the state you live in, the credential you are looking for when seeking the services of a nutrition professional is "RD." The other letters after a RD's name can vary, depending on their state's laws and other educational or specialty credentials the person carries. Consumers can find a registered dietitian in their area by using AND's (the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) "Find a Registered Dietitian" referral service. A link is provided on AND's home page.
So that clears up the question of who to turn to for reliable nutrition information -- the RD. Now what about all the things you hear in the media and read in magazines, books, and on the Internet? How do you know what to believe and what should raise the red flag?
Keep in mind that television reporters rarely have any real expertise in nutrition, so what they present may be an oversimplification of the research and its results.
The reported results may be based on just one small study, and a reporter doesn't have the time to describe how these results compare to previous research, how or if it aligns with old research, or if it is a completely new finding that needs to be studied further before any conclusions can be drawn. The media often reports on studies that are done on animals and extends the results to humans, or they take the results of research done on a certain segment of people and apply the results to the entire population. Neither is a correct way to apply the results of research.
You also want to keep in mind that television reporters rarely have any real knowledge or expertise in nutrition, so what they present may be an oversimplification of the research and its results. And we all know that the media often sensationalizes things to capture the attention of viewers.
Magazines are another popular source of nutrition information. Just glance around at the enticing headlines on magazine covers when you are standing in line at the supermarket. It is those teasers that often prompt people to throw a magazine in the cart. Who doesn't want to read about how to lose 10 pounds in 10 days? While it's true that many magazines use nutrition professionals to write or edit for them, many don't. What you read in a magazine article may be factual, but you need to know how to spot the fallacies.
The results of the survey were not particularly encouraging. Only one magazine almost reached excellent.
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that the coverage of health issues is based on scientific facts, has tracked nutrition reporting in popular magazines for over 20 years. In their latest report entitled, "Nutrition Accuracy in Popular Magazines", they examined nutrition articles in 20 magazines and rated the reliability of a sample of articles as "excellent," "good", "fair," or "poor."
The results of the survey were not particularly encouraging. Only one magazine almost reached excellent. So the same attention given to interpreting television news reports should be applied when reading nutrition articles written in popular magazines. You will need to consider:
- How big was the study and was it done on humans or laboratory animals?
- What are the credentials of the author?
- Are there any references to back the claims being made? (If so, check out those references. You may find that they are websites, or other magazine articles or sources that just repeat the same claim, but with no scientific evidence to back up the claim.)
Choose books to read in the same way you decide whose nutrition advice to listen to, and evaluate the content in the same way that you would evaluate a magazine article. Spokespeople for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics routinely review diet books, and their reviews can be read on AND's website.
Surfing the Web for nutrition information may be the trickiest venture of all. In a survey of over 1,000 men and women conducted in 2009 by AND 80 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in finding reliable online sources of nutrition information, but more than 60 percent said they sometimes had trouble finding correct information. Nearly seven in 10 people said they went to two or three websites to find nutrition information, and everyone surveyed believed that what they read online was reliable information.
Websites using a '.com' suffix may or may not be sources of reliable information. Sometimes they are simply commercial sites that are trying to sell you a product. Sometimes they provide useful and reliable information,
There are billions of websites in cyberspace, so entering a nutrition-related term into a search engine may result in hundreds, if not thousands, of "hits" making it difficult to decipher reliable information from quackery. But there are some ways to narrow your search and be reasonably certain of getting good information.
Start with the URL suffix. Use non-commercial websites first, e.g. websites ending in .org, .edu, or .gov. Websites using a ".com" suffix may or may not be sources of reliable information. Sometimes they are simply commercial sites that are trying to sell you a product. Sometimes they provide useful and reliable information, but the information should be carefully evaluated before you buy into what you read.
Pay attention to who runs the website, the purpose of the website, and the credentials of the authors. Who funds the website? This can affect the information it presents, how it presents the information, and what the owner's purpose is for the website. If the person or organization responsible for the website did not write the information, the original source of the material should be cited. Also, check for the currency of the material by looking for a date that indicates when the material was written or last reviewed.
Look for the HON, or Health on the Net, symbol on the site. Health websites that can be trusted should display the HONcode symbol from the Health On the Net Foundation in the lower right corner of their homepage. (You can also find it in the bottom right margin of this page.) Sites with this symbol adhere to the the HONcode set forth by the HON Foundation, a nongovernment organization that was founded to promote the dissemination of quality health information online.
Now you are equipped with the knowledge to be selective about who to believe and where to go for nutrition information. Basing your eating behavior on scientific evidence instead of the personal experiences of others, the lure of a headline, or someone's sales pitch is referred to as evidence-based practice, which is the gold standard for the practice of medicine as well as nutrition. And that's good for you!