With so many health blogs and social media accounts, it can be challenging to determine which sites are providing legitimate health information, and which are stretching the truth or flat out making things up. First hint: anyone claiming to be able to provide instant results with an expensive supplement is probably not legit. Check out how to tell if you should believe a nutrition claim.
Let’s walk through a mental checklist you can run through every time you encounter a new health blog or website:
Who Runs It?
Remember that absolutely anyone can create a website. Most websites will prominently display the website creator. There should be an “about” section or it might be explained on the home page or in the copyright. If you can’t find information on the authors, feel free to reach out if there’s contact information to determine the person’s credentials. Of course, you can’t trust a person’s advice just because they have letters after their name, but it helps add legitimacy.
Additionally, some websites or social media accounts have multiple authors, so you can find each author individually based on their posts. Being aware of any potential biases from each author is important to keep in mind when reading different articles on one website. For instance, if someone had incredible success with a certain weight loss supplement, you can bet they’ll be trying to sell it to you.
What is the Purpose?
Different websites have different purposes. Ask yourself, what is the website or social media account providing? Is it simply providing information or is there a service or product being sold? Good business practices will ensure that you will not miss if there is a product being sold. The “about” or “home” section will likely explain the purpose of the website to you. If a website is designed to sell a certain product, everything posted will most likely be in favor of the product.
When is the Information From?
How current are the most recent articles or posts? If nothing has been posted in the past few months, you might want to skip that site when you’re searching for information on current health trends. If there is citation included with posts, are the sources fairly recent (within the past 10 years)? There are many so-called landmark studies which are still important many years later, but since new studies are constantly being conducted, look for the more recent studies.
Where is the Information From?
Where are the authors getting their information from? Are statistics cited within articles or do the authors make claims with no support to back it up? If you ask, are the authors able to provide you with further information? Are the citations from credible websites (.gov, or .org are good places to start)?
Unfortunately, it takes time and knowledge of how to read a research article to sort through some of the citations, but some general hints the research article is not a great source to prove causation: small sample size (the “n”), short study duration, or an animal study. While looking at these studies is not a bad place to start, no one should try to prove anything based on studies with these limitations.
Be cautious if the only sources of information comes from testimonials either from customers or from the author themselves. Although testimonials are important, they are not a substitute for scientific evidence.
Why is that Posted?
All sponsored posts need to be clearly labeled according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which enforces consumer protection laws and regulates dietary supplement advertising. The FTC also deals with false or misleading health claims posted online. Although required, some websites may not disclose sponsorship. If the website is overly enthusiastic about a certain product or company and they are not trying to sell anything, ask yourself why. And feel free to ask the author of the website why they love the product so much.
A word on social media accounts:
Take everything on social media with a grain of salt. If a claim sounds interesting to you, look it up and find reputable sources to determine if the claim is true. Or, bring this claim to your healthcare provider or registered dietitian, but please do not change important things about your health based on something you read on social media. A big part of our job as dietitians is actually dispelling health myths and we’re more than happy to do the investigative work for you.