How to find nutrition news you can trust
I miss the days when we all stepped out the front door each morning to bring in a freshly folded newspaper ready to catch up on world and local news. In those days, journalists were our gatekeepers. We didn’t worry about whether the photo on the front page was photoshopped, or if a story was completely made up.
Today, with news coming from so many different sources, it has become much harder to decide who to trust. This is not just true for current events or politics, it also applies to food, nutrition and medical care.
As a physician that practices evidence-based medicine, the process of weeding out medical and nutrition “fake news” is pretty intuitive to me. But since not everyone has been to medical school (or journalism school or trained as a food scientist), I thought it would be helpful for me to share with you the five rules I follow to decide what to believe and what to ignore:
- Consider the information source. Much of the cardiology and nutrition news I rely upon comes from primary sources - that is, original studies written by researchers and published in peer-reviewed journals. (And many of my blog posts are based on those studies.) A peer-reviewed journal means that a team of reviewers does a quality check on the data before it’s accepted for publication. There’s automatically a huge difference in credibility between a study published in, for example, JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) and something resembling a study published on, for example, Medium (a site open to anyone to simply post on). When I reference studies in my blog posts, they’re always from peer-reviewed journals.
- Consider the type of data and who is behind it. The most reliable source of data for determining the efficacy of an intervention (whether a drug, a procedure or a food) is a randomized controlled clinical trial (RCT, like the type of study Step One did to assess the ability of our foods to lower cholesterol). In an RCT, everything is held steady or is accounted for - except the intervention that is being evaluated. Meaning, the net effect of the intervention can be isolated. All other types of studies don’t isolate what they’re studying nearly as rigorously and are therefore far less useful for drawing definitive conclusions. In addition, look at the institutions behind the trials. If Mayo Clinic or other large academic center (which have huge vested interests in maintaining their stellar credibility) are entities of record on a study, that's way more assuring of study quality than if a for-profit research site is the generator of the data.
- Consider the gatekeeper. What if you don’t peruse medical journals on a daily basis, are not familiar with all the various academic institutions out there, or don’t have much expertise in clinical trial design? That’s when the gatekeeper of the information becomes really important. Who is summarizing the data for you? Is it a highly regarded medical institution, individual or news source – or is it an unknown entity or celebrity on social media? Is authorship of the article or video clearly displayed? Are you able to readily search for information about the author and access other pieces put out by the same source? Be skeptical if you can’t find much information about the gatekeeper or easily find other content they have produced.
- Consider the information itself. Most credible medical and nutrition study results make sense and logically fit with other knowledge we have about a subject. It is exceedingly rare for one study to upend all knowledge that came before it. So always be skeptical if the information presented is too good or too radical to be true (even if the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal). If you just eliminate lectins from your diet will your health really be restored to perfection? Is eating unrestricted amounts of processed meat really without consequence?
- Be wary of headlines. These can be seriously misleading, especially if you’re not getting your information from the original source. Remember – media judges its success according to clicks, views and advertising dollars. That’s not driven by how carefully you review a piece of content – it’s driven simply by whether you displayed any engagement with it, however superficial. A headline may state that we don’t need to worry about cholesterol anymore. But unless you read the fine print, you might miss that the story is about the cholesterol content of food. And you might miss that even though food cholesterol has less impact on blood cholesterol than previously assumed, you still shouldn’t consume unrestricted amounts of it. And that blood cholesterol levels remain an exceedingly important risk factor for cardiovascular disease with effects that can materialize even in childhood.
When I started Step One, my overarching goal was to help people become better stewards of their own health so that they needed people like me less. The foods we produce are one aspect of that. But I truly hope you have also found the information we send your way each week by way of the blog both useful and actionable. I know that medical and nutrition news can be confusing and sometimes downright contradictory. Which is why I take great pains to explain it and put it into context.
If you have a heart health or nutrition question you’ve always wanted answered, please write to us! I might just create a blog on that topic.
By the way, if your question is what I think some credible sources of information about heart health and nutrition are for patients/consumers, here’s my go-to list for you:
- mayoclinic.org (My alma mater! Of course I trust them.)
- health.harvard.edu (The information presented in the Harvard Health Letter is always well written and balanced.)
- webmd.com (Having been a contributor, I can definitely vouch for the content.)
- cardiosmart.org (This is a website maintained by the American College of Cardiology. I’m proud to say this was an initiative I helped launch, serving as the first Editor in Chief).
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