Everyone seems to have health advice they are eager to share, from your hairdresser to a close friend who lost 50 pounds on a diet she read about. Approach such advice with caution. What works for one individual may not work for another – or for you.
You have different genetics, or you may have health issues, food allergies, or take medications that another individual doesn’t. Even factors like an individual’s gut microbiome can affect how you respond to a diet, supplement, or fitness program. It’s not one size fits all when it comes to weight control.
It is not just close friends and family that dole out medical advice, there is an abundance of “free” medical advice online and in print publications. These sources are not always reliable. In fact, you should take advice from some sources with a grain of salt, as they share health information that isn’t always backed by science. Which should you trust, and which should you avoid? Here are some to be wary of.
Television commercials are designed to sell a product, not provide health information. Any health info they provide is biased toward selling a supplement, a diet book, or other for-profit products. Television commercials can be quite convincing since they use techniques that arouse emotions rather than provide factual information and that’s the key to getting people to buy.
If you see a supplement advertised on television and you think it is something you need, talk to your physician about it, but don’t stop there. Look at independent research studies and reviews of the product on sites like Amazon. Consumer Lab is a site that independently tests supplements to ensure they contain what it says on their label and publishes the results. You can access those results and use it to decide whether to purchase from a particular supplement company.
Podcasts and Videos
Podcasts and videos can offer helpful information but know the source. Not all video and podcast hosts are health professionals and some actively promote a product. Some are also sponsored, meaning a company selling a product pays them to mention their product in a podcast. If a host repeatedly mentions a health product during a video or podcast, question whether the information they’re providing is factual and unbiased. If they are sponsoring a product, they may present the information in a way that favors that product. More reliable sources would be podcasts by known experts in the healthcare field or leading health institutions.
Social media is another source of unreliable and, sometimes, biased health information. You don’t have to be a healthcare professional to tweet about health, nutrition, or medicine. On sites like Twitter and Facebook, you can find lots of people with no health background tweeting about health topics, often without citing their sources. Some selectively present information that supports their own lifestyle and biases, for example, people who eat a vegan diet, might post health information about the dangers of eating meat. Some use health information to support an ethical position. It’s important not to confuse the two.
Marketing Material Designed to Resemble Health Information
Another habit that health marketers tap into is disguising marketing material as unbiased health information. Some companies present promotional information in a way that looks like an unbiased article on a health topic. It may even have quotes and references from physicians and so-called experts in the field. Look more closely. Somewhere on the page, you might see the word “advertisement” in small print.
Another variation on this is native ads, common on social media sites. Sites pay to have their content on a particular site, and they present it in a way that looks like a helpful health article. It’s a common practice and many people aren’t aware of it. Sometimes, you’ll see native ads at the bottom of a legitimate health article, as a recommendation for what to read next. When you click on the recommendation, it links to an article designed to sell a product.
Outdated and Unreliable Websites
Avoid websites that are blatantly trying to sell a product. Sites that offer tons of testimonials, guarantees, or special offers are not reliable sources of health information since they are not objective. They are there to present a product in a favorable light to get you to buy. Sites that promise quick results or guarantee a product to be effective is a tip-off that they’re concerned more about your pocketbook than your health. Some websites even recruit physicians and other healthcare professionals to promote their products. So, do not assume that a physician’s photo and endorsement indicate a product is safe and effective.
The other types of websites to avoid are outdated ones. Health and nutritional information changes all the time. Unless a site updates its content, you don’t know how reliable the information is. For website articles, look at the top or bottom of the page and see if it states when the article was last updated. The more recent the better. Also, look for references at the end of the article from reputable websites, like the CDC, Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and other reliable sources. Websites with a .gov or .edu suffix on their domain name is a reliable source since only government agencies can get the former and high learning institutions the latter and these sites usually offer reliable information. Also, look for trusted reference sources from .gov sites and respected medical journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The Bottom Line
Bad health information is worse than no information at all. You hear a lot about fake news, and it applies to health resources too. So, question what you read and hear and know the reliability of the sources you are getting it from. According to Pew Research, over 70% of the information that shows up in online searches is inaccurate. Keep your guard up and avoid sites like the ones mentioned above.
- Pew Research Center. “The Online Health Care Revolution”
- gov. “Online health information – what can you trust?”