Fact or fiction? Navigating health information online
Consider the below common nutrition messages: are they fact or fiction?
- “Juice cleanses are a healthy way to detoxify our bodies”
Fiction – One of our biggest organs, the liver, naturally ‘cleanses’ our bodies of all toxins every minute of the day. We can support this natural (and free) process by following a healthy balanced diet and lifestyle.
- “The best way to burn calories is to do a lot of cardio exercise”
Fiction – A combination of cardio, strength and flexibility physical activity is needed for good health and to build muscles to support energy balance.
- “Talking therapies are a waste of time for mental health”
Fiction – Treatment for mental health problems varies depending on the individual and could include talking therapy, medication or both!
The above myths are probably messages you have heard online, in the media or from other people. Why is it so common to hear misleading messages?
To explore this, let’s consider how scientists and researchers test out what really does help:
Step 1 – They get an idea from observing trends, patient experience or expert opinion. For example, we may start to see a trend towards longer life in Japan where the fish consumption is much higher than other countries. This suggests a possible link.
Step 2 – They look at the science in the laboratory; is there a plausible biological mechanism in the body to link fish with longevity?
Step 3 – They go to intervention studies where they can test cause and effect e.g. if we feed these people more fish do they actually live longer?
Step 4 – They must repeat these intervention studies to gather more evidence of the same result (not fluke) and across different population groups so they can ensure that any recommendations can suite everyone.
Step 5 – They bring all the data together to draw a conclusion and turn it into trustworthy recommendations for clinical practice.
Misleading messages can come out of the above process where the media might share a message before it gets fully tested and then word of mouth passes it on; or a person might have a particular personal agenda and “cherry pick” from the information to support their own argument. Finally, some myths may actually have been true in the past; as time goes by we are learning more and more and so we have to update older messages.
Top tips to help with navigating all the health information available:
- Websites sponsored by government, educational institutions, or credible professional organisations are more likely to provide unbiased information than commercial websites.
- Be cautious of information presented if there are advertisements on websites – if the site is trying to sell you something it probably isn’t trustworthy.
- Be careful with links. If a link on a trusted website directs you to an entirely new website, do not assume that this new website also has trustworthy information.
- Look for the phrase ‘last updated’ on the webpages to see if the pages are current. If there is no indication of when the information was last updated, then do not assume it is current.
- Look for indications that the information on the webpage is based on research or expert review and not just opinion.
- Compare credible websites. Compare the info you find on one credible website with information on other credible websites to see if it is consistent.
- Verify health claims that are based on personal testimony through multiple credible sources. Online support groups, forums or blogs are a great way to share experiences and information but should not be considered a trusted source of health and medical advice.
- Evaluate the strength of the health claims presented. For example, a health claim based on one small study is not as strong as a health claim based on the findings of multiple large-scale studies.
Questions to ask yourself when considering health messages in the media / online / word of mouth:
- Does it sound too good to be true? Be sceptical of health information that contains claims of a ‘miracle cure.’
- Am I only hearing one side of the story here?
- Who has written / told me this? What qualifications do they have?
- Is this a charity / government / professional body web page?
- Was this page updated in the past 3-6 months / is there a review date on the material?
- Where can I verify this information? Perhaps a health care professional / other credible websites?
The internet, social media and other people can be a great source of information and support, provided they are used wisely. We hope the above information supports you in making best use of these valuable resources.
We would love to hear from you; have you perhaps debunked a health myth through your own research? Which are your favourite reliable information sources and why?