Felicia Newell, RD, MSc
Fact vs Fiction: How to Spot Misinformation in the Wellness Industry
The one thing I wish I could (and try to) instill in all of my clients, is to be careful of content you consume on social media. There is a rising increase in misinformation on social media from unqualified 'experts', particularly around health and nutrition, and these messages can be harmful as they contribute to unnecessary fear and restriction of foods - and in rare cases, consumption of dangerous eating patterns, such as the carnivore extremists who actually spread fear and misinformation around consuming veggies and fruit <face palm>.
These posts, articles, videos, sound compelling, and they get a lot of engagement (views, likes, etc.) because false information spreads faster than the truth. This of course can be very frustrating, but to help identify red flags, if someone is making a bold statement (e.g., dairy is inflammatory), then they should have high quality evidence to back it up - which in most cases they do not site any evidence, or they site studies done on mice. In fact, the highest quality evidence shows consumption of dairy either has no effect or a reduction of inflammation. If someone is calling a food 'toxic' or 'poison' this is also a huge red flag, as with something that is 'poisonous' to the body it is the dose that makes the poison (e.g., water can be harmful and 'toxic' in large enough amounts) and the overall diet that counts.
Why does false information spread faster?
A study published in ‘Science’ magazine showed that false information was about 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and had reached 1,500 people about six times faster than the truth. This is unfortunately just one example of many.
Researchers found, and I agree, that fake or misinformation tends to provoke more intense types of feelings, such as surprise, shock, or fear, because it is often more alarming and uses fear mongering to touch people’s pain points (like marketing tactics). Therefore, people are more likely to engage with it, comment, react, and believe it if it sounds compelling enough. Additionally, algorithms of platforms such as TikTok and Twitter tend to amplify extreme views, likely because it does get more engagement.
Often misinformation promises a quick fix and easier solutions, which is another reason why people tend to gravitate towards that type of information. Due to living in a demanding, fast-paced world, people can sometimes have a ‘quick’ fix mentality, versus putting in the time and effort that it would take to have long-term success. Especially when people have anxiety or discomfort towards the problem they’re trying to find a solution for, and because of that they want it resolved as soon as possible.
Example: insert common problem (aka weight concerns)
Influencers will often use marketing tactics to offer a ‘simple solution’ to address the pain points (problems) of their ‘ideal audience’ (someone struggling to lose weight). They’ll make bold claims such as ‘heal your gut/balance your hormones/lose 20 lbs in 12 weeks without starving yourself’ and offer you bold information such as X food is toxic and is the reason you can’t lose weight/balance your hormones, etc.’ They do this because they know it increases engagement and builds their brand.
Versus evidence-based professionals, we know that everyone is unique and different strategies work for different people. We know that weight loss is complex and therefore advice should be personalized. So, instead of sharing misinformation because we understand the dangers in this, we give truthful advice that isn’t as appealing and doesn’t get as much engagement (especially without marketing help), such as: eat more legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, some dairy, eggs, fish and lean meats if you want to, and reduce intake of processed foods.
What are some red flags that we should look for when we read or hear a health fact or health suggestion?
Uses wellness industry buzz words/marketing terms that have no true meaning and often no sound science to back them up, such as: ‘clean foods’; ‘chemicals’; ‘all-natural’; ‘toxic’; ‘inflammatory’; ‘detox/cleanse’.
Uses extreme language about perfectly nutritious foods that are easily accessible to most people (e.g., oils are toxic).
They don’t use any evidence to back their claims, or they use weak evidence such as studies on rats, or a small study posted 15 years ago.
Promises quick fixes such as lose 20 lbs one month, ‘heal your gut’, ‘fix your hormones’.
They blame a single food or habit for chronic disease (which is complex and multi-faceted, with no one single food or habit to blame).
They push you to distrust conventional medicine/practices, yet they push supplements which are unregulated.
Uses appeal to nature fallacy – natural = better; manmade = bad. (Arsenic is natural...).
How can we verify information? How do I know if I can trust a source?
This can be tricky, and sometimes overwhelming because there is so much misinformation out there lately so it can be hard to know who/what to trust. On top of this, even experts can sometimes get things wrong. However, most evidence-based professionals understand this and are perfectly okay with accepting they made a mistake and amending their stance when presented with new information.
My best advice would be to:
Look for the red flags mentioned previously, and if they are present, to take that information with a grain of salt.
Always look at new information critically and ask questions: where is it coming from? Are they trying to sell you something? Do they have the credentials (in that specific area of expertise) to back up this claim?
Look for the information from a trusted organization such as Health Canada, Diabetes Canada, Dietitians of Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation, etc. These organizations are usually not-for-profit, and they also have thousands of health professionals and researchers that work for the organization who conduct the research behind, develop and review their information.
Most evidence-based professionals such as registered dietitians, physiotherapists, nurses, doctors, etc., have the knowledge and training to digest research and deliver health information. However, even these professionals can sometimes make mistakes or there are a small percentage that get sucked into the misinformation themselves. When verifying information (especially if it is an alarming and bold claim), make sure you are hearing the same thing from multiple trusted experts and organizations.
It can take many years to fully understand the ins and outs of research, but one of the best things you can do is to try and educate yourself on the hierarchy of evidence. In simple terms, there are certain types of evidence (aka research studies) that are higher quality than others. If someone is using research to back their claim, studies from the top of the hierarchy pyramid are considered higher quality evidence and should be used, especially when making a bold and alarming claim (e.g., X causes cancer). Honestly, most professionals know how complex and nuanced cancer is, so would never even boldly say something ‘causes’ it. Instead, you will hear these professionals use language such as ‘increases your risk of’.
@dr_idz on Instagram and Tiktok, and ‘Dr Idz’ on Facebook, is probably one of the best evidence-based professionals you can follow on social media. He debunks health and nutrition information with solid evidence in a way that is concise and easy to digest.
For help with taking control of your health and developing a healthy relationship with food, using a personalized approach, feel free to check out the shop page for booking options, or reach out to email@example.com with any questions (and no pressure to book!).
Felicia Newell is a Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist, Food and Nutrition Expert, Health Coach, and a mom of 4 kids under 12. She is also the owner of Sustain Nutrition/FN Health. Felicia wears many hats, and knows what it is like to try and live healthy in a busy world, where our environments aren't always supportive of making healthy choices. Life is busy, confusing at times, and full of contradictions, especially in the world of health and wellness. Felicia is passionate in helping others fight through the misinformation out there, and to navigate life and health, but most importantly, to enjoy it while doing it. She has over 12 years of education and experience in Nutritional Sciences. Between completing her Bachelor and Masters in Nutritional Sciences, working at a research centre, teaching university courses, years of nutrition counselling helping people crush their goals, and being a busy mom of 4, she has the passion, skills, education, and experience to help you reach your health and wellness in a way that works for YOU.