These days, when we’re hunting for health and nutrition information online, we’re likely to go to Google. Polling by the Pew Research Center finds that close to three-fourths of internet users had searched for health information online within the past year. And their first stop in that quest was a search engine like Google, Yahoo or Bing. But is the nutrition and health information you uncover in online search results actually accurate? In many cases, it’s flat-out wrong.
Here’s a scary example of that: A study published in 2012 by the Journal of Pediatrics showed that in Google searches for information about infant sleep safety, 44 percent of the 1,300 health websites that were analyzed had posted recommendations in line with guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Meanwhile, 28 percent of the sites contained inaccurate information and 28 percent of the sites weren’t medically relevant, Scientific American reported.
“In today’s age, information is disseminated often unfiltered and resembles a mosh pit of anything and everything. Nowadays, health and nutrition info on social media is perceived as an authority as much as traditional sources are,” says Brandon Mentore, a strength and conditioning coach and a sports nutritionist.
Health psychologist Gretchen Kubacky says she sees patients every day who are “overwhelmed, discouraged, confused and often engaging in unhealthy practices they’ve picked up” from promotional material online that’s masquerading as accurate health and nutrition information.
So, how do you stay out of such a predicament? Kubacky recommends limiting the number of websites where you seek health and nutrition information and relying on reliable sites such as MayoClinic.org and WebMD.com. Head to the website of the Medical Library Association for a list of 100 health sites that it classifies as trustworthy.
Here are seven other tips for avoiding misinformation overload online.
1. Look out for demons and deities.
Beware of internet information that “either demonizes or deifies individual foods or food groups,” says Tim Blake, owner and founder of SuperFitDads.com. This sort of info almost always is wrong, he says.
2. Question the claims.
Be skeptical of information that looks at foods in isolation and labels them “healthy” or “unhealthy” rather than considering them in the context of a varied diet, Blake says.
Generally, if a claim is being made about a certain food or food group, think of examples where that claim doesn’t hold up, he says. For instance, Blake says, if a website states that white rice makes you fat, think of Japan, whose population eat lots of white rice yet has an obesity rate much lower than the U.S. rate.
3. Don’t fall for the marketing.
Watch out for too-good-to-be-true assertions (“You’ll lose 10 pounds in five days!”) in advertising and other marketing channels online.
“Be mindful of information that is tied to a product or a pitch. Take it with a grain of salt,” Mentore says. “Place a premium on information that puts the individual first, not the product or method.”
Chiropractor Dr. Jackie Romanies adds: “Don’t believe the next big fad.”
4. Don’t make assumptions.
Keep in mind that studies published in academic journals might be faulty, Blake says. For example, results of a nutrition study conducted on mice might not apply to humans.
5. Check the source.
If you come across online reports about an academic study, make sure the study is legitimate, Kubacky suggests. You can do that by checking out the study itself; there should be a link to it from the web page you’re visiting.
However, Mentore notes, “just because information may not be referenced or validated doesn’t mean it lacks value or application.” He adds that health and nutrition information “is not so much correct or incorrect as it is applicable to you or not.”
6. Ask the pros.
Verify online health and nutrition information with a licensed medical, nutritional or mental health professional, depending on what type of information it is, Kubacky says. Also, ask those pros which websites they trust for health and nutrition information.
7. Pay attention to your gut.
“You can find evidence to support or deny just about any health claim, and almost every approach has been proven valid for someone’s healing,” health coach Kelly Costigan says. “Ultimately, I believe it comes down to trusting your own instincts and choosing to believe what resonates with you as an individual.”