You use Google these days for pretty much everything, so chances are you've used it to get some diet advice, too. Almost a third of 20-somethings and 30-somethings, for example, rely on the internet to help them lose weight, according to a 2013 Pew Research Survey.
But while it's perfectly fine to crowdsource low-carb recipes from Facebook, you want to be selective about the diet advice you get from cyberspace. "A lot of the information you'll find online is very general and doesn't take into account your specific medical history, medications and lifestyle," explains Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition LLC in Atlanta.
Plus, if you follow an extreme diet or even take a so-called weight-loss supplement without checking with your doctor, it can cause some serious damage. Case in point: In October 2019, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about Skinny Pill, a popular diet supplement sold online, because it was found to contain DMAA, an illegal amphetamine linked to high blood pressure and even heart attack.
Of course, the internet can be a wonderful resource, too, when it comes to weight-loss advice. The key is to know what to look for and recognize when a red flag pops up. In that spirit, here's your expert-backed, scam-proof checklist, featuring six questions that can help you determine if the advice that turns up in your Google search, community forum or social media feed is actually legit.
1. What's the Source Here?
When you land on a web page, the first thing you should look for is an "about us" or an "about me" section. Ideally, the site should be run by the federal government, a nonprofit, a professional organization or a medical hospital or institution. (These sites all tend to end in ".gov," ".edu," or ".org.") Or it could be a consumer site, like LIVESTRONG.com, that transparently cites information from these sources and quotes experts in the field.
If, on the other hand, the site is run by someone who claims to have lost an incredible amount of weight by following a miracle diet or simply by popping supplements, it's time to log off, says Al Bochi.
The website should also provide a way to contact the group or webmaster. If it doesn't, be careful.
Reputable sites for diet information include:
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Beyond good diet advice, this nutrition site will also help you find a registered dietitian nutritionist in your area.
- ChooseMyPlate: This U.S. Department of Agriculture site will give you plenty of tips and tricks for healthy eating.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Living: Backed by the U.S. government, this site provides the nuts-and-bolts of weight loss (including healthy tips on cutting calories at each meal and beefing up activity).
- International Food Information Council Foundation: This site provides some of the latest research on weight management and diet.
2. Is There Any Scientific Proof?
If a site makes health claims that seem too good to be true then, well, they probably are. Be wary of claims that a certain product or weight loss plan is a "breakthrough," or that it relies on a secret, miracle ingredient.
"Try to get past the hype of the marketing and advertisements, and be sure to look deeper to see if there is any research or real scientific evidence to back up the testimonials," says Paul Stricker, MD, a physician with the Scripps Clinic in San Diego and a health advisory board member for Juice Plus+.
If the website cites studies, make sure that they were double-blinded, controlled studies, which means one group got the product in question, while another group didn't. "If something is going into your body, it's worth the extra effort to determine safety and its overall effectiveness," explains Dr. Stricker.
3. Are Credentialed Experts Involved?
That influencer hawking her wares on Instagram may have a gorgeous website and thousands of followers, but if she doesn't have a background in medicine or nutrition, her advice is moot. "Always look for quotes from professionals credentialed in a specific area of expertise from a science-based organization — for example, a registered dietitian credentialed by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, or a certified personal trainer credentialed by the American College of Sports Medicine," advises Jaime Schwartz Cohen, RD, director of nutrition at Ketchum Public Relations.
Credentialed experts are more likely to be promoting weight-loss strategies that have real science-based research behind them, and they're also required to follow a professional code of ethics.
If you want to use a nutrition or weight-loss coach that you've found online, make sure he or she has got all the appropriate state licensing and credentials. If she's a nutritionist, for example, she should be an RD who is licensed by her state.
4. Is It Up to Date?
Nutrition and diet information is constantly changing, so make sure that the information you're reading is current, advises the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Ideally, all information should have been updated within the past year.
If there's no date on the page, take it with a grain of salt. A lot of broken links is another tipoff that the site's not in tune with the times.
5. Is My Privacy at Risk?
There's also never, ever any reason to give credit card information to a health information website, adds Dr. Stricker. If the site requires a payment or subscription before releasing any details about its plan, process or supplement, skip it.
6. Would My Doctor Agree With This?
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all great for social support when you're starting a new diet or weight-loss plan, but keep in mind that just because a post is from a friend doesn't necessarily mean it's accurate. Check the source of the information, and make sure it's credible. When in doubt, always run it by your doctor — that's what he or she is there for, after all.