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How to Find Nutrition Advice You Can Trust
Karen Collins, MS, RDN Answers by Karen Collins, MS, RDN

How to Find Nutrition Advice You Can Trust

By going online, you can get lots of nutrition advice. The problem is that what you read one place often conflicts with information you see someplace else. Some of this has to do with how scientific studies are conducted and how the results can be reported or misreported. In the race for our attention, many sources will focus on sensational (but possibly flawed) studies or exaggerate the importance of a study to support a biased agenda. The result is misinformation, conflicting information, and a whole lot of confusion.

Here are three steps to help you zero in on trustworthy sources and think more critically about headline-making health studies:

1. Watch for Red Flags

  • Consider the intentions of your source. Does the source offer products for sale that may influence the information they present? Do the authors have a background in science or nutrition? Is the information being presented in a sensational or “click-bait” manner? If so, it doesn’t necessarily mean the information is wrong, but it should probably be verified.

  • Does it promise a quick fix or make claims that sound too good to be true? It’s enticing to think you could make one eating change and shed 10 years’ weight gain in a month, or take a supplement to offset a slew of unhealthy eating habits. But doesn’t your gut tell you that’s unlikely? Trust your gut.

  • Is the advice based on one study? Science doesn’t completely turn over based on a single study. Evidence for an eating pattern or nutrition therapy builds as different researchers find similar results in similar studies with different subjects.

  • Does it discuss a study without giving any details or link to it? Without this information, there’s no way for you to check even the basics of when the study was published and if its conclusions are presented accurately.

2. Take Time to Ask Questions 

Scientific studies about nutrition and health are very difficult to design, execute, and translate into practice. Here are some things to consider next time you see a sensational headline about a new health study:

  • Does the study involve humans, animals, or isolated cells?  Animal and lab studies let scientists explore ideas for potential further research, but we can’t assume the results will be the same for humans in the real world. Even in human studies, you should take a closer look at what kinds of humans were studied: a 20-year old lean athlete may respond differently to a food or eating pattern than a 50-year old person with overweight and type 2 diabetes. Try to find out who was in the study and how these participants compare to the population at large (or yourself).

  • What kind of study is it? “Systematic reviews” or “Metanalyses” are the most reliable studies, because they look at the results of several studies on the same topic and can draw stronger conclusions. “Controlled trials” set up an experiment where people are assigned to different groups and one particular aspect of their diet is changed, while all other factors are controlled. These trials are good at singling out cause-and-effect but are usually short term and involve a small number of participants, so we can’t necessarily assume the results apply to everyone. “Observational studies” look at a larger population over a longer period of time and observe associations between eating habits and health outcomes, but they can’t always prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

  • What’s being compared? When a study finds that one eating pattern is associated with better health outcomes than another, pay attention to what it is being compared. For example, a healthful vegetarian diet is going to lead to better results when compared to a diet filled with fast food, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that a vegetarian diet is better than an equally healthful eating pattern that includes meat.  

  • How meaningful was the difference?  Scientists talk about whether results are “statistically significant,” meaning the results probably didn’t happen just by chance or accident. However, results that are statistically significant may not always be clinically significant or make a meaningful difference in your health. A food or diet might result in better weight loss than another in a two-month study but turn out no better in a longer-term study. Talk with your healthcare provider or diabetes educator about whether results of a study would likely make a meaningful difference in your health.

3. Assemble a Collection of Go-To Trustworthy Sources

  • Rather than entering your nutrition questions in a general search engine, identify sources you trust to deliver information that’s been evaluated for quality and shared in a big-picture context.

  • Bookmark non-profit, academic, or government sites (they usually end in .org, .edu, or .gov) like the American Diabetes Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and National Institutes of Health. The information on these sites is vetted against scientific literature before it is posted. For commercial sites, some options are better than others. Sites like WebMD and Healthline typically reference the studies they discuss and cover the potential limitations of a study. 

  • Instead of following the health advice of a celebrity with no nutrition training, base your choices on recommendations from credentialed experts such as dietitians (RD, RDN), diabetes educators (CDE), or doctors (MD, PhD).

Finally, when looking for nutrition advice online, the most important question to ask is: Is this advice realistic for you? It’s true that if you want to change your health, you will need to change your behavior. But extreme changes and restrictions are unnecessary and unlikely to stick. If the advice is something you can’t stick with long-term, then it’s probably not good advice. Changes don’t need to be big to make a difference in health. Small adjustments in eating habits add up over time and can make a meaningful difference in managing your diabetes.

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes®, through her website; and follow her on Twitter @KarenCollinsRD and Facebook @KarenCollinsNutrition

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