Miracle Cures (or How to Spot a Fake)
Updated: Dec 20, 2017
Finding reliable nutrition information presents a unique challenge. As nutrition is a science, our body of knowledge is constantly evolving, with studies building upon studies, and conflicting information at many turns. Just last year, researchers from two major Boston-based universities published contradictory studies about the health detriment / benefit of consuming butter. Instead of too little information, the interweb is ablaze with hundreds (or thousands) of sites - both factual and fictitious - all claiming to have the best knowledge about how to cure what ails you. Nutrition studies make sensational news headlines every day. Journalists condense the findings of a scientific study into quick sound bytes that appeal to readers or listeners, but often don’t tell all - or even the most important parts of - the story. It is overwhelming, to say the least.
Every day, I see “scientific” articles about the latest and greatest diet crazes, health fads, supplements, and cure-alls shared from friend to friend on social media sites. This is a troubling trend when the information is false or misleading. At Tufts, one of my semester-long courses focused solely on interpreting nutritional data. As a result, I have learned how to evaluate these articles with a critical eye and discern whether they have any validity, or whether they are oversimplifications, misinformation, or simply have no basis in science.
Here are a few preliminary questions you can ask yourself to determine if the article or website you’re reading passes the sniff test.
Start with the source. Is it a website? If so, who runs it? In terms of scientific reporting, the most credible sources come from .edu (educational institutions) and .org (non-profit foundation) sites. If the website is a .com, look through the menu until you can figure out who owns it, who funds it, and what the purpose of the site is. If the .com site is also trying to sell you a neutraceutical product that just so happens to do whatever the research claims, that’s a big red flag. If it is a news channel, look to see the source of the original information.
Who is reporting this information? If the source is a journalist, keep in mind that many reporters and journalists have little, if any, expertise in nutrition. A journalist with a degree in nutrition or health sciences from an accredited university is more likely to know how to interpret data and report a story more accurately. If an article says, “new study shows that eating almonds lowers your LDL cholesterol,” but fails to mention that the study participants also stopped eating saturated fat from butter and cheese, then you are only getting part of the story. I would advise against running out and purchasing anything you hear or read in a news story without looking for the fine print. Remember the study that said you "should" eat chocolate cake for breakfast in order to lose weight? What the researchers really said was that eating your dessert early in the day gave you more time to burn off the calories. (Bummer to anyone who thought that eating a flourless chocolate torte every morning could help get them ready for bathing suit season.)
Where is the information coming from? There is a difference between anecdotal and clinical data. Anecdotes are unproven in a clinical setting, and therefore, not considered valid forms of evidence. Anecdotes are personal stories, such as, “I gave up dairy products and haven’t had an asthma attack in fifteen years,” (true story) or “My mom drank kombucha and it cured her breast cancer.” Clinical data refers to data collected during a clinical trial. Any legitimate health claim will include transparent references to the published, peer-reviewed clinical study that yielded the results, usually at the end of the article, or a hyperlink if online. Any articles purporting health claims should include a link to the study, and reference notes, so the reader can access the study findings. Any health article that says, “research is currently underway to prove XYZ” does not count. Research that is “underway” means that data doesn’t exist. The gold standard in clinical research is double-blind research conducted on humans (not rodents) at accredited universities (with large labs and adequate facilities for conducting studies under the proper conditions) and published in legitimate, peer-reviewed journals. In the USA, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is considered top dog.
Now, a side note about clinical studies. As a person who believes in the health merit of lowly processed foods, I have to say that there is a sad lack of clinical data when it comes to studies on food additives and preservatives, and the effects of processed food on our health. One of the problems we see is that clinical data just doesn’t exist for certain situations. For example, in order to find out if cured meats like hot dogs are truly a culprit in causing childhood leukemia, the scientific community would have to find a sizable number of parents willing to enlist their children in a long study to determine just that. I am most certainly not one of those parents! In these cases, scientists often work backwards, starting at the problem and working backwards to see what subjects have in common in order to have a jumping-off point. If ninety out of one hundred pediatric leukemia patients self-reported that they ate one hot dog every day until diagnosis, then that might spur some buzz that hot dogs might be to blame. But without clinical data, that hypothesis would not hold water in the scientific world, and would remain unproven.
What is the article's goal? Be wary of any website that offers nutrition information in conjunction with a platform to sell vitamins or dietary supplements. Don’t rely on guarantees - manufacturers’ guarantees, money back guarantees, or guaranteed cure-alls. Take any claim that a supplement is reported to “detoxify,” “purify,” “revitalize,” or “energize,” with a grain of salt. Those are not scientific claims. Also be wary of articles that claim they have the cure for a disease that is not understood by medical professionals, or that the reason their miracle cure hasn’t been acknowledged by the general public is due to conspiracy. There are plenty of hungry scientists out there looking for the next big breakthrough in medicine and treatment. Chances are that if they haven’t discovered it, neither has the armchair scientist.
Here is an example of an online article that seems like it is full of promising information, but is really lacking in scientific evidence - test your skills, if you wish. Entitled 25 Benefits of Eating Turmeric, it was published online in 2012. Although I love turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties, and I use it frequently in recipes, this article offers a number of unsubstantiated claims. First, the author is a yoga teacher with no listed nutrition education or medical background. Second, only five of the twenty-five benefits mention research studies, and none of them link to the specific study or the journal in which it was published. Third, she highlights tests in rodents, which are not the same as tests in humans. You will note the usage of “may prevent,” which indicates that there is not enough data to prove this claim. Finally, she fails to mention a sufficient dosage amount, or that turmeric is contraindicated for pregnant women (may cause bleeding and uterine contractions), for anyone with liver or kidney disease, or for people on certain medications. This article, with its catchy title and amazing touted health benefits, would most definitely send people to the vitamin aisle.
It all boils down to this. Think clearly when you read, whether it is an article touting a health breakthrough or a health product. Consider the source and its credibility. Look out for flashy health claims. It's doubtful that the touseled-haired model in the Facebook ad truly looks that healthy due to a gorgeously-packaged bottle of lemon water. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!