The Internet gives immediate, easy access to information, so it’s no surprise that you may go there to find nutrition information. While some of the material you find may be reliable, some is not and some is just downright scary! To find accurate, science-based nutrition information, it’s important to be able to evaluate online content. 

Evaluating online nutrition content

1.     Be skeptical

2.     Focus on quality information (credible, reliable and current)

3.     Cross-check

Be skeptical

If it sounds too good to be true, it often is! Look for these red flags:

·       promises of a quick fix or immediate results with little effort

·       miracle cures

·       a simple solution (e.g. taking a supplement) to a complex problem (e.g. obesity)

·       fearmongering (e.g. headlines that claim a food or ingredient is toxic)

·       reliance on testimonials and anecdotes for proof

·       sensationalism, especially in headlines that are designed to grab your attention

·       generalizations

·       overemphasis on the benefits of “natural”

·       attacks on conventional medicine, nutrition and/or healthcare professionals

·       use of disclaimers (e.g. results may vary or results are not typical)


There may also be some overlap. For instance, the headline, “Sugar is toxic!” is both sensationalism and fearmongering at its best. If you find the information provided causes you to raise your eyebrows, pay attention to your instincts and do more digging.


Focus on quality information

Quality information is credible, reliable and current. 


Credible

Credibility should not be a popularity contest, but online it’s often measured by the number of followers a person has. Instead, expertise based on education, training and experience ensures credibility. Registered dietitians are the food and nutrition experts because they are uniquely qualified and regulated healthcare professionals. To determine whether others are qualified experts, look for their credentials, but also do some research into what those credentials mean. For example, medical doctors (MD) or chiropractors (DC) may be qualified clinicians but that doesn’t mean they are nutrition experts.

 An industry group or organization that uses experts and credible spokespeople or refers to other trustworthy sources is also credible.


Here are some questions to consider when evaluating online nutrition information:

·       What is the main purpose of the information? Articles, blogs or social media posts that are trying to persuade you to purchase books, special foods or supplements should raise a red flag. Credible experts will disclose when they are receiving money or incentives to promote a product but will still give their own personal opinion.

·       Who is the author – a registered dietitian or other health expert? What are the author’s credentials?

·       Does the information link to other credible sources?


Reliable

Reliable information is science-based, meaning it’s supported by research. However, nutrition research is complex and often oversimplified or sensationalized by the media. Thisarticle by Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Healthcan help you understand the complexities of research and put health news into context.

 

Respected health organizations and government authorities also provide reliable information.


Current

Good quality information is based on the latest research or current guidelines and recommendations. It is reviewed regularly. Look for the date of material posted online.

Cross-check

Don’t be too quick to believe the latest headlines. Cross-check the information you find with other sources of credible information. Sit on it for a bit to see what follow-up comes. After a few days, many qualified experts will have had time to read the article, summarize the major points, pull out the key messages, rebut any false statements and suggest other sources of information.

 

Online information is not a substitute for medical advice or personalized nutrition guidance. Make sure to consult a regulated health professional and share with them what you find online. 


The bottom line

Don’t believe everything you read online. Anyone can claim to be an expert and anyone can publish almost anything they want with few repercussions. Critically analyze nutrition information on websites, blogs and social media platforms. Be skeptical—look for red flags and seek quality material which is credible, reliable and current. 

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Colinda Hunter, RD

Registered Dietitian

Colinda (BPE, BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian committed to sharing her knowledge of food and healthy eating, along with the science of nutrition, to promote optimal health and wellness. As a Project Manager with Dairy Farmers of Canada she develops nutrition programs and resources to support health professionals. Colinda sits in the Board of Directors for Dietitians of Canada as well as the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research.

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