Be Health Smart

10 ways to spot the bullshit in health media

May 20, 2014 · 4 min read

by Kiley Albrecht

Goals of this article

  • Understand that most of what you read in the health media isn’t the whole truth.
  • Develop your own strategy to find the truth in health claims for yourself.

We want what’s best for our health, but with ever-expanding media outlets and the resulting information overload, how can we distinguish help from hindrance, sound advice from a sales pitch?

We’re so used to “ignoring” the ads in the corners of websites and the Coca Colas they’re drinking on TV, that most of us aren’t even aware that we see upwards of 5000 marketing messages a day. Even when we are paying attention, the advertisements are so carefully crafted that we believe that we need those products, or that if we exercise enough, we’ll look like the person in the ad. But really, it’s all one big ironic misunderstanding—most of the packaged food products we see will only make us feel worse, and we’ll never be able to look like the person in the ad because that’s not how people really look. Food for thought: an average US woman is 5'4" tall, 140 pounds; the average US model is 5'11", 117 pounds!

We’ve been conditioned to disregard our health without even knowing it and all for unrealistic expectations. Even when we do make a conscious effort to find unbiased diet and exercise advice, we’re often lead in circles until we’re too dizzy to make sense of any of it. To make matters worse, even the most well-meaning health information can be inaccurate.

To navigate all the information that’s out there you’ll need a good compass. Follow these ten guidelines to sidestepping the bullshit and arriving at the truth:

  1. Consult the experts. Beware of self-proclaimed “nutritionists” who may be trying to sell something. For sound advice, seek out degreed professionals such as Registered Dieticians (RD’s) who undergo rigorous training and certification in nutrition and dietetics, or others with an M.S., Ph.D. or D.Sc in nutrition, public health, or related sciences from an accredited university.
  2. Screen your online searches. Anyone can make a website and some sources can look legitimate even when they’re not. Proceed with caution when web addresses end in .com (commercial) or .net (networks) as they are more likely to be sales-oriented. Web addresses ending in .edu (an educational institution), .gov (government agency), or .org (non-profit) tend to be safer sources of more objective information.
  3. Interpret health claims. Food packages use claims like “good source of whole grains” and “excellent source of vitamin C,” which are true, but that doesn’t mean the product isn’t also loaded with sugar, salt or fat. Always read the ingredients list.
  4. Keep emotions at bay. Be skeptical of any product that makes guarantees or sounds too good to be true. Words like “break-through,” “miracle,” “special” or “secret” are marketing tools designed to appeal to the emotions, which are meant to overpower your objective rationality.
  5. Look and think critically. Some of the time you won’t even know you’re being manipulated. The pictures of a farm with happy animals and words like “all natural” lead your subconscious to think about health and nature rather than chemicals and factories. Don’t forget—not everything that’s natural is good for you. Arsenic and poison ivy are natural. Always practice being aware.
  6. Be skeptical of testimonials. Two things—one, of course a company is only going to choose great-sounding testimonials or what would be the point? Two, they only apply to one person’s experience, which is naturally biased. That person may be a paid sponsor, have a different worldview than you, or be susceptible to placebo effect.
  7. Look for extensive research. Beware of simple conclusions from a complex study or conclusions based on just one study. It is very difficult to design and carry out a reliable study due to the incredibly complex nature of the way the world works. The more studies that corroborate each other, the more likely it is the findings are valid. Trusting every study you see will lead to all sorts of confusion. Case in point: Coffee linked with heart failure vs.Drinking coffee may reduce risk of heart failure.
  8. Find out who is funding the research. If The Hershey Company funds a study to determine health benefits of chocolate, do you think the results are more or less likely to be in favor of chocolate? Unaffiliated, publicly-funded scientists have a better chance of being objective.
  9. Remember, the media likes to be dramatic. Popular new stories need to be attention-grabbing so they often exaggerate or simplify research outcomes. Subtle or uncertain results won’t sell. If possible, find the original research publication in a scientific journal to peel away the news reporter bias.
  10. Know that even unbiased info may not apply to you. In the end, even when studies conclude things like “Echinacea has no significant role in mitigating the common cold,” it doesn’t mean the results are end-all-be-all. As long as you consult a professional and protect your own health and safety first, self-experimentation is often the best way to find out what works for you.



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