Spend more than two minutes online and you'll come across plenty of content that's inaccurate, misleading or false. That can feel especially true when it comes to articles on nutrition or weight loss. Recently, Facebook announced that it will be cracking down on this type of bogus content, including sensationalized health stories.
"There's a rush to post headlines on the latest [nutrition] studies," Christine Palumbo, RD, tells LIVESTRONG.com, and that haste can lead to inaccuracies.
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But that doesn't mean every weight-loss transformation or diet-related story you read is a sham — even if you come across two articles with conflicting information. "There are a lot of terrific diet and nutrition articles out there, and they don't all have to agree with one another to be solid and accurate," says doctor of public health and registered dietitian Wendy Bazilian.
With so many different sources to sift through, the onus often ends up on the consumer to figure out what's legit and what isn't. It's not always easy, but it's doable. Here are five tactics that can help.
1. Consider the Source
Anyone has the ability to publish an article online. Just because something is posted on a website doesn't make it true. In general, you're more likely to find factual, bias-free articles from major news or health organizations than from individual bloggers or small websites, says Palumbo. Bigger outlets have large teams of writers, editors, fact-checkers and scientific and medical advisors working together to ensure a story's information is correct before it hits the web.
That's not to say that smaller websites or personal blogs can never be trustworthy. "There are a lot of respected and credentialed health professionals who operate on these channels," Bazilian says. "But readers should take a step back and evaluate who is doing the posting before buying in fully." For example: A registered dietitian or board-certified medical doctor might be more likely to get the facts right than a healthy recipe blogger without any formal training.
2. Check the Research
Lots of nutrition and weight-loss articles highlight new study findings or cite studies to back up their case. But not all research was created equal. The results of one paper don't prove that a certain diet is the best for losing weight or that a certain food will help you live forever. "No one study changes everything," says Palumbo. "Most researchers look at what was learned in the new study in light of the body of research that came before it."
When an article calls out a specific study, try to learn a little more about it. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Was the research published in a peer-reviewed journal?
- Was it an observational study or a controlled trial?
- Who funded the research?
- Are there other, similar studies that back up the findings?
Learning the answers to these questions can help give you a sense of how significant a study's results really are.
3. See Where the Other Information Comes From
Aside from the studies themselves, what else is the author using to make their argument? Articles that include quotes from medical experts or cite facts from major medical organizations are more likely to be reliable than those that just link to other news stories or blog posts, Bazilian points out. If there aren't any other sources? That's a sign that the author is simply relying on their own knowledge or experience over scientific evidence.
4. Watch for Red Flags
Sketchy weight-loss or nutrition articles might be lacking in quality science, but if that's the case, they're usually loaded with other easy-to-spot warning signs. Palumbo recommends steering clear of stories that have:
- Flashy words like "cure," "breakthrough," "miracle" and "guaranteed" in the headlines: These types of articles often suggest that a certain food, supplement or diet is the solution to all your health concerns.
- Celebrity endorsements: If a product or diet needs a famous face to back it up, there may not be much solid science behind it.
- Before-and-after photos: These might grab your attention, but beware of fakes. These days, it's easier than ever for individuals to doctor photos.
- Fixations on certain foods: Even though kale and quinoa are really good for you, they surely won't solve all your problems.
5. Ask Yourself, “Does It Seem Too Good to Be True?"
Yes, a quick fix to improve your health or lose weight would be nice. But trust your gut and be realistic: You know reaching bigger health and fitness goals takes time and effort. "Think about whether the article goes against common sense," Bazilian says. "If something just sounds too good to be true, it probably is."