Tim Crowe was kind enough to take some time to speak with me about his take on nutrition and social media. Tim is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, holds a PhD, and is an Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University (represent!). He is also the mind behind the wildly popular, hilarious and scrupulously evidence-based website Thinking Nutrition that many of our readers would already be following. This website is Tim’s way of communicating important nutrition messages to the public in plain and simple language, with this communication being free from commercial interests and always informed by evidence. We here at The Nutrition Press are students striving to do this too, so we have a lot to learn from him!
I asked Tim to answer some questions for us about what it’s like being a Dietitian in this age of social media, how Thinking Nutrition has influenced his professional life, and also asked for some advice on how to communicate nutrition science to others.
What was it like being a Dietitian before social media, and how has it changed since? Was it easier or harder?
It was easier in some ways. You didn’t get as much grief from the amount of misinformation we’re seeing. That stuff’s always existed. It’s always existed in a book. Someone wrote The Atkins diet or The Cabbage Soup diet. That was still out there in magazines and books, but it didn’t permeate your mind 24 hours a day through your newsfeeds. So you become much more aware of it, it has a much bigger impact now because of the reach of social media.
…anyone can access it – I guess it’s harder to read a book.
People needed to make more of an effort to get hold of that information that may not always be correct. Now it’s just always there in their face. A lot of people don’t read the whole articles, they just get the snapshots of headlines. If you’re not in nutrition, if you’re not an expert, that’s fine – you absorb information. If you see continuous messages that “this is toxic”, “this is bad”, “this causes cancer”, then that’s what you start believing because that’s what you’re exposed to and you don’t spend much time researching in-depth. I don’t research physics in-depth, I don’t research chemistry in-depth, I don’t research cars in-depth – I just absorb the executive summary that others have prepared for me.
Has the role of a Dietitian changed a lot since social media?
For Dietitians that want to be proactive in giving some balance to it, there’s an opportunity for them to get more involved in social media.
…so you can join them rather than resist them?
Yes exactly. So what a Dietitian does hasn’t changed – the evidence is still the same, the dietary guidelines are still the same. The fundamentals of good nutrition haven’t changed. It’s not for everybody, but for those that want to – they can get involved with blogging, Facebook pages and so on. There’s an avenue for them to give some influence. And also, to raise their profile if that’s an advantage to their career, so it’s actually an opportunity as well.
Your website Thinking Nutrition provides credible evidence based nutrition information in straightforward language. How has the website changed your professional life?
I got involved in social media about two or three years ago – just thought I’d give it a bit of a try. Now, social media just becomes part of what I do. You know, my mind’s always on Thinking Nutrition, and whenever I see or read something, I think “how can I put an angle for putting that on social media?”. So I actually see it as part of my job – it’s not extra work that I have to do, it’s all part of it. All day I’ve got twitter feeds I monitor, there are certain pages that I read all the time, and I post when I see good information. So it’s just a natural thing now, and that took a bit of time to get used to. Whereas before, usually when people start with social media, they think “OK, I’ve got a blog, now I have to set aside a time to write a blog post, now I have to write a post for my Facebook page, now I better do some tweeting”. Whereas for me, it’s become organic. It’s part of my professional duty in some ways. Not everybody’s doing it though. That’s no different to what happened before social media, because there’s this thing called the media! I was very active with this – giving interviews to the regular media. Now, social media is an avenue for me to actually dictate the content rather than the media. When you have a large following, your influence can be just as big. It’s happened on a couple of posts – I’ve had half a million to a million reads on The Conservation or on my blog. That’s massive reach compared to an interview in The Age or something.
That’s a good point that media has been there for a long time, now it’s just a different type…
That’s right. No matter what your message is, if you can get a big following and there’s some good people and not so good people out there with big followings, a million plus followers on Facebook, they can have just as much reach and influence as the media, potentially. Although the group that follows are more like-minded, whereas in the media, that just scatters out to everybody and people can choose to accept it.
I guess you can filter it more on social media – follow what you want to follow.
That’s right. And we’re all guilty of that. It’s cognitive bias – we seek out things that agree with our worldview. And nobody can deny that that’s the case – anyone who says differently is lying. We are all biased – we’re all guilty of it. But the good thing about scientific training is that it tries to beat that out of you as much as possible. It’s not perfect but it’s much better than just reading blog posts and going by something just because it feels like the right thing to do. We don’t operate in that world, thank God.
I think that’s the biggest misconception about science, that it’s “fact”, but it’s quite the opposite.
It’s not fact, and that’s one thing I’ve let go of over many years. I accept that things aren’t as factual as what we think they are, not as solid. There’s bias in every research that you read. Not just in methods, but even funding. I don’t mean funding by the Dairy industry, or grains. But funding by government is biased because if they’ve got an agenda of wellness, say reducing diabetes, then researchers will target their research to try and get that grant money. They’re not doing anything malicious, but it’s still targeting an agenda by a funding body. So it exists all throughout science. It’s knowing that that exists when you make recommendations is the important thing, and balance that level of research.
You have an articulate way of explaining things by simplifying them without being patronising or dumbing them down. Have you always been able to do that or has it come with experience?
Experience, experience, experience. I’ve been writing for 15 years for Choice Health Reader. That’s where I started learning how to do this – how to communicate. I’d get some research and I’d repackage it, for what I’d consider the informed layperson. I’d generally write for a reader of the Age rather than the Herald Sun, if that makes a difference – slightly a higher level. That’s been practiced over many years combined with the media, where you can’t give a media interview and say “well the results from this study is interesting, because it is indicative of an association between eating fruit and vegetables that may increase the long term reduction risk of diabetes, but more research is needed”. That’s about 40 words long. What you need to say is “eating fruit and veg is good for reducing diabetes risk” – being more black and white. As scientists we go the other way – we hedge our bets, we qualify, which is perfect in scientific writing. In the media and for the public, it’s best not to qualify too much. I try to avoid qualifying and write things more black and white, but just try and shape the language to show that this isn’t the definitive be all and end all. That’s just been a process of 15 years of doing that – learning to write and slightly improving over time.
So it’s a learning process?
It is. Anyone can do it – firstly write to a style that suits you, and then you copy people that write stuff that mimics you – I do that all the time. I like someone’s style, and over time, I start writing a bit like them. David Katz – I’m a big fan of his writing. I’m finding that stuff that he writes starts appearing in my writing – and to me that’s great. I would do the same for anyone looking to get better at this. Find a style that you like – it could be scientific style, conversation style, whatever. If that resonates with you, that’s how you should write, because you’ll find a following that resonates with you as well. You can’t write for everybody – you have to find a niche audience that you like writing for and stick with it.
Speaking of lessons learned, I wanted to ask you about the toxic broccoli article which was very interesting – the article itself and then the backlash to it. So, the satire as you know was lost on some people because they thought that it added to the confusion that often comes with nutrition, but these were the same people who only read the headline and not the whole thing, proving the point of the whole article…
It was a learning experience. It was many months in the making – it wasn’t a thing I just did off the top of my head one day, I had been thinking about it for many months about how to do this. It was quite well planned, it wasn’t done as click-bait, absolutely not. I had a reasonable assumption if I wrote what I considered a fairly lame type of headline – something with really rough sort of language – that people would see that it was satirical. The first couple of lines said exactly what it wasn’t going to be about. But, what I learned was that a lot of people – that’s all they read, the headline and went straight to the comments box. A lot of people do that, but I like to think that if I’m going to comment on something I would have read a bit of it. It was an emotive title that just generated a reaction. Then I thought, well, how much of the headlines that you see on your social media feed, on your Facebook feed from friends and what-not, do we just absorb purely just from the sound bites? Probably a lot. So that was interesting. I wouldn’t do it again, because I don’t want to intentionally mislead people. If I’m adding to confusion, I don’t want to do that, I want to be clearer. But it’s a nice example – yes there was a lot of very passionate anti-comment, but that’s what created the traffic. I got about half a million reads on that article. Right or wrong, controversial posts generate traffic, and traffic means more influence and more engagement. To me it was a good thing in the end that it got that polarising view. Because if you wrote a blog post that says “hey research shows that eating fruit and veg are good for you” – let’s move on, that’s not exciting. We know that, we’re not doing it. So it has its role to play to be controversial at times, but not as controversial as that. I would happily do it again, but I would manage it a bit differently, that’s all.
It’s an interesting study in media, they should probably study it in high school!
And there’s been other people who have done other things in other fields. There’s been stuff in chocolate research, done to see how much you can permeate through the media. It’s not the first time something like this has been done. It was a good experience and good for increasing my social media following in the end. I can see why people who wanted to use it for evil – I know people who have got a book to promote, and people who have got serious financial issues who do this intentionally. Perhaps they do believe that sugar really is toxic and even a small amount is bad for you, but that’s the headlines they write, and that gets the traffic. They’re doing intentionally because they believe it, but partly also because it is controversial and to just keep repeating the same formula – a good formula. You can actually learn from the people that you have opposing views to. You can look at what they do, and mimic it in some ways, while still holding true to your values and your training.
A little off topic from social media but another controversial issue – the Health at Every Size movement. We’re taught at uni about the dangers of obesity – what are your thoughts on Health at Every Size on the back of the evidence that obesity is harmful for our health.
I certainly respect where they’re coming from. No one’s denying all the health effects of excess weight – that’s a given. But all our current interventions have been absolute failures – even the best dietary approaches, and the trendy fad diets – absolute long-term failures. So the argument is, what’s the point of recommending more diets when clearly they don’t work? Yes you can find anecdotes that work for a few hundred people, but mostly they’re just a complete failure. So at a public health level, there’s other things that have to be done to address the food environment – regulatory approaches, that sort of stuff. But at an individual level, is it useful to talk about diet? It probably isn’t. It’s still important to talk about health risks of excess weight, but supporting people to deal with that the best way possible. So the Health At Every Size approach is about accepting your current weight and to and be as healthy as possible at that current weight. You can still eat better and not be losing weight – so that’s a step in the right direction. From a purely medical perspective you’d still be better off eating better and losing some weight, but we’ve got no solution for that except for bariatric surgery. That’s the only intervention we can say clearly is effective and long term in the majority of people. Every other diet is a complete failure. If diets are failures, and general lifestyle changes are good for health, they may or may not result in weight loss but the focus then isn’t about weight loss, it’s about eating better.
I was thinking that it’s a mainly a treatment perspective, because what we’re doing isn’t working. It’s also good for psychological reasons.
It’s another view, another camp, another perspective. Not everybody agrees with all of the approaches. I don’t agree completely with removing any focus of obesity and health, but that’s the bias of my medical training – it’s a major, major cause of morbidity and mortality, you can’t hide that. But the approach is that you don’t use that to shame someone – it’s demotivating. And evidence says that’s a bad thing to do, to say “if you don’t lose weight you’re going to get diabetes and you’re going to lose your eyesight”. That is not a good approach.
Well it’s bad on at least two levels isn’t it – one, it doesn’t work, and two, it’s very hurtful…
It doesn’t work, and shaming can actually be a disincentive, so that’s a bad approach. So it’s more communicating more positive messages. But outside of Health at Every Size, there’s reasonable evidence at the moment to look at psychological approaches – mindfulness for example. It’s a really trendy, new-agey field at the moment, even though it’s been around in Buddhism for thousands of years. But mindfulness itself and thinking about what you’re eating – more intuitive eating – is connected with Health at Every Size as well, and that can be a really good approach. That’s a very psychological approach and Rick Kausman has been doing that for decades. It’s really good work that I respect totally – a good approach. But again from an evidence base, there’s probably just as much or just as little evidence that [the Health at Every Size] approach can work just as well as diets. So we’ve acknowledged that what we’re doing hasn’t worked, so let’s try something to at least get a couple of health wins. If someone eats a bit better and feels better about themselves mentally, then that’s great. It’s not going to make their risk of cancer or diabetes go away, but it’s a good start.
Wrapping up then, what is your favourite part of your job?
The favourite part of my job is the diversity of things I get to do. Research in multiple areas of clinical nutrition which is my love, I get to teach some really wonderful students in undergrad and postgrad in a whole diversity of areas, and then I get to do loads and loads of nutrition communication to the public. I get to do my own social media, I do media comments, and I work with various health organisations as well. So it’s great. An all-encompassing job that involves nutrition and research so it fits me to a tee. Not for everybody, but it’s great, I love it. Having some level of influence as well – having a stronger voice. I have no qualms in being very black and white with language I use in media or social media now. The disagreers and the haters don’t bother me at all – you only get them when you’re actually being vocal. So I take that as an endorsement that I’m doing something right. I don’t get many of them which is great.