The biggest running joke in my family happens to be about eggs.
Every so often, someone in my family will have to ask:
So Alyssa...what’s the verdict on eggs this week? Are eggs good for me? Are they bad for me? Can I eat the yolk? Is it just an “egg whites” kinda week? Can we have more than one egg?
Now I get it - there is often an overload of new nutrition information being pumped into the media, and most often, these messages can become construed and muddled because they are conflicting.
(John Oliver has a fantastic segment on this exact topic that I highly recommend you watch)
Although we can laugh about how ridiculous some headlines about nutrition can be, these confusing health messages can have negative consequences on the public, including mistrust in healthcare professionals, reduced engagement in health promoting behaviors, and doubt in nutrition information, even when numerous research studies have pointed to health benefits (e.g., fruit and vegetable consumption, exercise) (1) (2).
So does that mean we should just throw in the towel on nutrition information, and call it “fake news”? Of course not.
BUT - we should really approach nutrition information in the media with a critical lens and ask ourselves these three questions.
1. Who is presenting the information?
Now more than ever, nutrition information is everywhere! But in the sea of information there is often a lot of misinformation from people who do not have a nutrition background.
It is really important to look for the credentials of who is presenting nutrition information. If the person is a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), you can be confident that they are presenting factual, evidence-based information.
Registered dietitians are the experts in nutrition. They are a regulated profession, meaning, like doctors and nurses, they report to a college. Dietitians are held accountable by the college to the highest standard of education and ethics, and must use evidence-based practices to provide the best, person-centred care to patients (3).
What that doesn’t mean? We aren’t here to preach celery juice or promote sketchy weight-loss fad diets to the public (and if you do see this - run for the hillllllls).
If you are reading an article or watching a segment that doesn’t feature a registered dietitian, look out for who the medium is quoting and if that person has anything (monetarily speaking) to gain from being quoted (e.g., publicity for a new weight-loss diet, the sale of supplements, etc). They may not have the best interest of the public in mind.
2. Is the research coming from a single study?
Often the media loves to sensualize the latest study - we hear it all the time in the news “In the latest study…” or “A brand new study…”
Just know that in the world of evidence a SINGLE study does not have as much significance or power until it is systematically analyzed and grouped with a bunch of other studies that are saying the same thing.
I’m talking about the hierarchy of evidence.
The hierarchy of evidence is the cornerstone of evidence-based practice, which works to systematically rate the probability of research bias in studies (4). You may have seen it before - a pyramid shaped diagram that puts meta-analyses and systematic literature reviews at the top and case reports and opinion papers are the bottom. Case reports and opinion papers are usually based on the researcher’s opinion and often do not use any sort of methods to control potential confounding variables (4). Basically, they are just reporting what they saw, and what they saw, may have been by chance.
Policy makers, physicians, and allied health care professionals like dietitians are encouraged to use the highest level of evidence to inform and guide their practice. Using this system, we can confidently make recommendations and guidelines using evidence that is unbiased, produces a similar outcome each time, and has less risk of systematic errors (e.g., are less likely to harm individuals) (4).
To put this into terms, you wouldn’t agree to a surgery if your doctor told you that they only performed it once and it worked for that guy, so it should work for you, right? You’d want to know why the surgery worked, what steps they took for the surgery to work, and whether they’ve used these same steps a bunch of times and had the same outcome each time.
So when you hear a news reporter talk about “a brand new study”, listen closer and take it with a grain of salt. The findings may be interesting and flashy, but they may not be backed by sound research.
3. Does the information sound too good to be true?
We’ve seen the headlines:
Although anyone would love to jump on the fact that they could have copious amounts of chocolate, sometimes the media takes a small piece of information and blows it up into an all too good to be true headline.
That’s what makes the article or television segment SO DANG interesting.
But if you dig a little deeper into what the media is reporting on, you may find that the headline is misleading, and has NOTHING to do with what the study was actually researching.
Take the “Glass of Red Wine is Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym” headline from HuffPost. The study that the article was based on was called “Improvements in skeletal muscle strength and cardiac function induced by resveratrol during exercise training contribute to enhanced exercise performance in rats”.
Several problems with the HuffPost article:
The research study makes NO MENTION - absolutely NO MENTION - that one glass of red wine is equivalent to one hour of exercise.
The study was not based on red wine, but a compound that is found in red wine (and other foods like blueberries, peanuts, and pistachios) called resveratrol. And resveratrol was given as an isolated dose with the rats’ diets, not in the form of wine.
The study was conducted on rats not humans. This piece of information is often neglected in the media. You can not extrapolate animal studies to humans. Although we often use animal studies as a stepping stone to human studies, we cannot take those results and apply them to humans.
The resveratrol dose was used in conjunction WITH EXERCISE. The study’s main focus was to see if resveratrol would be beneficial to muscle strength and heart function, and in turn, enhance exercise performance in rats. Thus, the claim that HuffPost makes about drinking red wine is equivalent to exercising is simply not true.
In the end, the HuffPost article was written to mislead the readers into thinking they were in for a quick-fix to not having to exercise. However, we all know that incorporating daily physical activity into our lifestyle can have more beneficial effects on our health than drinking red wine. (5) (6) (7)
As the viewer of nutrition information, it is important to not take everything for face value and question what is being said.
Get into the practice of fact-checking articles. Often, articles will have links to the original research study. By comparing what is being said by the person who has written the article, versus what the researcher’s study is addressing, you will be able to easily identify whether the article complements or deviates from the research.
Research isn’t static. We are always learning more about the foods we eat and the health benefits that we can derive from them. Although food and nutrition knowledge is constantly changing, it isn’t changing at the rate of which the media portrays it (cue the “this was good for me last week and now it’s bad for me this week” conversation).
But whether you are confused about what the media is saying about eggs or are wondering if you should take up chocolate, understand that the underlying principles of healthy eating have been the same for many years:
Have plenty of vegetables and fruit.
Choose whole grains.
Eat protein foods (select plant-based proteins more often).
And make water your drink of choice. (8)