5 Steps for Identifying Credible Nutrition Information
Quick, unofficial poll: how many times have you “Googled” something this week? Heck, how many times have you “Googled” something today?
I’ll be honest - I use this search engine all. the. time. Just today I’ve searched for the quickest route to the grocery store on my way home, the price of my mom’s Christmas gift, how much snow is predicted tonight, and what the bus schedule is for the Fort Collins area.
I love Google. Unfortunately, though, its algorithm is not designed to filter between “true” and “untrue” information – that’s left up to the reader. When it comes to nutrition, there is so much of each true/untrue stuff out there, it’s really hard to determine which is which.
Because of this, I thought I’d give you a few tips to help judge whether a website (or magazine article or book) is a credible source of information. Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Instead, a person needs to use a lot of critical thinking.
To give an actual example, I’m going to evaluate two articles today that discuss the topic of artificial sweeteners – a subject that is ripe with misinformation.
Step 1: Watch the website
Believe it or not, all websites are not created equal. Step one in the process of evaluating an article is simply to check the website at face-value.
Typically, more credible websites end in: -.gov, -.edu, or -.org. However, even -.org websites are not necessarily valid, although they generally designate an organization rather than a commercial venue.
This is not to say that -.com websites are never credible sources. After all, my own website ends in -.com and I consider myself an expert in my field. However, these websites are not as well-regulated as the aforementioned extensions.
I also look at the name of the website – is it a person or an organization (www.doctoroz.com or www.cancer.org)? Does it seem inherently biased (www.naturalnews.org)? Or perhaps it tells me very little.
Suspicions regarding website #1 (www.authoritynutrition.com): The word “authority” in the name and the “.com” ending.
Suspicions regarding website #2 (www.draxe.com): The name “Dr. Axe” in the title (is he selling something??) and the “.com” ending
Remember - these are only my initial reactions and these "red flags" don't alone indicate the quality of the information. However, if I had started with a website such as medlineplus.gov, I would know that this government website would be citing information based on well-established nutrition guidelines and wouldn't really need to look further into the credibility.
Step 2: Avoid Emotion and Extremes
Depending on the source, there is likely more or less emotion attached to the information in the article. Typically, inflammatory statements are likely used to capture your attention rather than provide quality information. Take a look at the title and the first sentence in each of these articles:
Immediately you can tell that one of these is meant to illicit all kinds of emotion (especially fear) while the other merely states a fact. Again, this alone does not mean that one article is more credible than the other, but it is another “red flag” to remember.
Step 3: Beware of Bias
Delving more deeply into the websites, my next question of bias is usually whether or not somebody is making a profit from the information they provide. A few of the most common ways that people make money with nutrition information are:
Paid diets or diet plans
Selling supplements, such as vitamins or protein shakes
Endorsements (big companies like Monsanto or specific product endorsements like a supplement company)
Let's take a look at potential bias on each of the example websites.
Perhaps there is no money directly changing hands, but a websites indicates a personal connection to one side or another. For example, I'll admit bias on my own site: my parents own and operate a modern "industrial" farm in Central Kansas. As such, I have more personal experience and empathy for these types of farms.
Does that mean all of the information I provide is inherently biased and thus untrue? Certainly not. A website that is biased is not necessarily wrong, but again it’s important to keep in mind how this might affect the quality of the information.
Step 4: Look for the source (credentials, please!)
Not every website must be written exclusively by an expert in order to be credible, but the author should at least cite credible sources. However, articles written by experts in the field are generally more likely to be accurate. These authors not only are able to cite sources, but have the training and expertise to critique these sources.
Examples of credible sources:
Experts in the field (see below)
Well-established organizations, such as Mayo Clinic or the National Institutes of Health
National Organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or the National Cancer Institute
Experts in their field are best identified by their credentials, but credentials can be tricky. Some are valid, but recently more and more credentials are being issued from not-so-valid sources. In the case of our examples, I had to do quite a bit of digging to unearth where some of the credentials came from. (Side note: if you're standing in front of the person, you should ask what the letters after his or her name actually mean!)
A few "rules of thumb" regarding credentials:
Look for a license – most states license their professionals, but unfortunately dietitians are not licensed in every state (come on, Colorado!)
Look for registration by a national organization – good credentials should have specific education requirements (for RDs, it’s a BS in Dietetics from an accredited university), usually some sort of internship or requirements for supervised practiced, and also a registration exam
Check the university or college – is this a credible, freestanding institution?
Unfortunately, the not-so-credible-credentials can be really hard to identify. Using the example websites, it took me quite a bit of time to learn what different credentials meant.
Because there are many people who claim to be experts in the field of nutrition, I always recommend that one contact a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (designated by either an “RD” or “RDN” after his or her name). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides a brief explanation of the difference.
Basically, the title of “nutritionist” has no specific qualification requirements, whereas a “dietitian” has very specific registration requirements. Of course, some nutritionists who don't have their RD are wonderful and give excellent, evidenced-based advice. And some RDs leave something to be desired - perhaps they are not all up-to-date on the latest guidelines. However, this is another piece of the puzzle to consider.
Step 5: Cross-Check the Information
Is the information provided consistent between websites? For example, do FDA guidelines correspond with what the American Heart Association recommends? Is WebMD giving you similar information as your doctor?
Obviously this can be biased as well, as sometimes we only see what we want to see. As such, I recommend looking at information from a variety of subjects and some that have a different view than your own.
At the end of the day, I always recommend to talk with your favorite dietitian to understand the nuance (see my blog on Why Nutrition Research Seems So Confusing) behind what you're reading. I went to six years of school that was solely dedicated to the study of nutrition. My job is to help interpret the research and guidelines so they make sense for you, with your health concerns and level of income, with your food preferences and cooking ability. When in doubt, please ask!
You'll notice the importance of using all of these tools together. No one step is a bulls-eye for determining whether or not you're looking at a credible source. It's really important to use all five steps when you're evaluating the quality of information in front of you.
Wading through all of this to find the truth can be tough. So if you're feeling overwhelmed or have a question, I strongly encourage you to find a registered dietitian near you.
Godspeed in your journey to discover the truth. With love, from Peas and Hoppiness.