Ever found yourself googling the healthiest diet? Or maybe you are perpetually interested in the newest nutrition trend? You’re not alone. In fact, recent research shows that almost half of internet users search for information on diet and nutrition Pollard CM, Pulker CE, Meng X, Kerr DA, Scott JA. Who uses the internet as a source of nutrition and dietary information? An Australian population perspective. Journal of medical Internet research. 2015[cited 2017 June];17(8):e209. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4642382/. However, it can be challenging for consumers to tease out reputable versus fraudulent nutrition information online and in the media.
Self-appointed ‘nutrition experts’ are nothing new, but the rise of social media has given them a more influential voice than ever. Therefore, in this technological age where anyone can be a ‘nutrition expert’, how do we protect ourselves from misleading and unsubstantiated nutrition recommendations? The best way is to be an informed consumer and to be aware of the common claims and themes that accompany nutrition misinformation. So, here are some common elements of dodgy nutrition advice to help you work out what is credible and what isn’t.
1. Does the advice promote detoxes and cleanses?
The words ‘detox’ and ‘cleanse’ seem to be the words on everyone’s lips these days. I won’t lie, ridding my body of toxins and cleaning my system with a promise of purification and redemption does sound very appealing. But how do these ideas fit into reality?
The word ‘detox’ is actually just a case of a legitimate medical term being used as a marketing strategy. If toxins did build up in your body so that you couldn’t excrete them, you would likely die or be in need of serious medical intervention. A healthy, well-functioning body has many organs, such as the kidneys, liver, skin and lungs that are detoxifying your body right now. Going on a juice cleanse or eating specific foods does not aid this process of detoxification. Put simply, no qualified dietician or health professional would ever use the word detox unless they were referring to the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions.
At present, there is no compelling evidence to support the use of detox diets or treatment for toxin elimination, as the claims are unsubstantiated by scientific evidence Klein A, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015 [cited 2017 June];28(6):675-86. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25522674. So with no scientific basis, why do detox diets continue to permeate the nutrition community? Although many products and self-proclaimed ‘nutrition experts’ like to perpetuate this myth with confidence, do yourself a favour and steer clear of the allure of the ‘detox’- however appealing it may sound.
2. Does the advice focus on specific foods?
Many self-proclaimed ‘nutrition experts’ like to highlight specific foods and claim that they have specific health benefits which make them healthier than regular foods. Good examples are coconut oil, turmeric, quinoa and kale which are elevated above other foods and given ‘superfood’ status. However, good nutrition is about balance and variety amongst the different food groups. No health professional or dietician would recommend focusing on one particular food with amazing health benefits; it is about variation.
3. Does the advice restrict food groups?
In contrast, misguided nutrition advice also tends to promote heavily restricting whole or multiple food groups. But avoiding food groups altogether can have serious short and long-term health impacts. Commonly, grains and dairy are recommended to be cut from peoples’ diets by ‘nutrition experts’ due to myths, such as our inability to properly digest these foods or how dairy causes us to produced excess mucous in our body. However, The Australian Dietary Guidelines, which contains the best nutrition advice to date, suggests that we eat from all of the five food groups for a reason. Wholegrains contain key nutrients, such as dietary fibre, thiamin, folate and magnesium and are an important factor for reducing the risk of colorectal cancer Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH, Ferreri S, Knudtson M, Koraym A, Waters V, Williams CL. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition reviews. 2009 Apr [cited 2017 June]1;67(4):188-205. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stefanie_Ferreri/publication/24247618_Health_benefits_of_dietary_fiber/links/00b495391040b77454000000/Health-benefits-of-dietary-fiber.pdf Slavin JL, Jacobs D, Marquart L, Wiemer K. The role of whole grains in disease prevention. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2001 Jul [cited 2017 June] 31;101(7):780-5. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002822301001948. Dairy foods contain key nutrients, such as calcium, riboflavin, zinc, potassium and vitamin B12 and are important for maintaining bone density Rozenberg S, Body JJ, Bruyere O, Bergmann P, Brandi ML, Cooper C, Devogelaer JP, Gielen E, Goemaere S, Kaufman JM, Rizzoli R. Effects of dairy products consumption on health: benefits and beliefs—a commentary from the Belgian Bone Club and the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases. Calcified tissue international. 2016 Jan [cited 2017 June] 1;98(1):1-7. Available from: http://www.esceo.org/sites/esceo/files/publications/Rozenburg_Effects_of_diary_products_consumption_on_health.pdf Ebringer L, Ferenčík M, Krajčovič J. Beneficial health effects of milk and fermented dairy products. Folia Microbiologica. 2008 Sep [cited 2017 June] 1;53(5):378-94. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19085072. Therefore, avoid buying into claims that cutting whole food groups from your diet can be inherently beneficial, as it will most likely cause more harm than good.
You may be asking ‘what about people with specific allergies or those that follow alternative diets for moral reasons, such as vegans or vegetarians, don’t they often exclude food groups from their diet?’. In this instance though, work must be put into obtaining specific vital nutrients from alternative and appropriate food sources to avoid vitamin and mineral deficiencies- usually under the guidance of a health professional. In some cases, in terms of vegans, sources of vitamin B12 must be obtained primarily through supplements. Overall, it is recommended that you consume foods from the five food groups to increase your chance of obtaining all essential nutrients for a well functioning body. Don’t believe the hype about cutting grains and dairy from your diet that is spouted by self-made nutrition experts, as the best research we have refutes this. There is a difference between excluding food groups from your diet for a medical reason under the provision of a dietitian or doctor and simply cutting out a food group because of supposed negative health effects.
4. Is the advice marketed with testimonials and personal anecdotes?
Although personal testimonials with before and after pictures and anecdotes might seem compelling, this is some of the poorest forms of evidence. The hierarchy of evidence states that the more random and controlled the trial is, the more compelling the evidence. In this case, personal opinion is not a trial, random or controlled in any way. A lot of nutrition misinformation and fad diets are marketed with personal stories of weight loss and health conditions being cured, typically because actual scientific research and evidence does not exist to substantiate their claim.
Personal testimonials may seem appealing, but anecdotal evidence is poor because it does account for other factors that may have influenced the outcome. Good quality scientific research and clinical trials take extraneous variables into consideration and try to minimise their impact on the outcome of the trial. So next time you notice that a recommendation has been ‘proven’ to be effective by personal anecdotes and testimonials, reconsider its validity.
5. Is the advice supported by a single study?
The nature of scientific research and good study design is sometimes a bit complicated. Even if the nutrition recommendation seems valid, as it has been proven in a study, this does not necessarily mean that the advice should be followed. Some short, small studies may have a particular finding, however, due to the nature of small, single studies, complications can occur due to small population sizes, and other variables confounding the results. You have to check if the study has been peer reviewed, if the trial was randomised and controlled and done with a large enough sample size that was representative of a particular population. If not, the results may be poor and not significant enough to apply to a population.
6. Does the advice claim to cure disease?
Many fad diets and particular foods claim to possess healing properties and cure diseases such as cancer. Whilst particular ways of eating, such as avoiding specific foods or food groups can be used as a means to alleviate symptoms of particular diseases, such as short bowel syndrome, allergies, intolerances and Coeliac disease, respected organisations, such as the Cancer Council Australia recommend to avoid following any diet claiming to cure cancer.
However, there is a relationship between an unhealthy diet and lifestyle with the increase of tumour development and cancer risk Ruiz RB, Hernández PS. Diet and cancer: risk factors and epidemiological evidence. Maturitas. 2014[cited 2017 June];77(3):202-8. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378512213003605. Although consuming a diet higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals can lower your risk of developing cancer, avoid buying into claims of cancer curing diets, as these self-proclaimed ‘nutrition experts’ are essentially perpetuating nonsense.
7. Does the advice contradict generally accepted nutrition guidelines?
Lastly, ask yourself if the recommendation is being echoed by the most reputable health and nutrition organisations in your country. If not, it is very likely that the advice is poor and not substantiated by scientific research. The consistency of the message is what matters. If you are in Australia, is the government, Nutrition Australia, VicHealth, Diabetes Australia and Cancer Council Australia repeating the same message? If the recommendation counters generally accepted nutrition and health guidelines then you are right to question it.
In Australia, the Australian Dietary Guidelines use the best available scientific evidence to provide information on the types and amounts of foods, food groups and dietary patterns to aim to promote health and well-being, reduce the risk of diet-related diseases and reduce the risk of chronic disease. The guidelines that have been proposed are a result of decades of nutrition research and evidence and are based on 55,000 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. So avoid buying into claims that are refuted by major scientific and nutrition organisations.
At the end of the day, we all search for nutrition and health advice on the internet and read articles about the newest ‘superfood’ from Brazil. However, hopefully, you are now a little more equipped to sort through the nonsense and questionable recommendations.
Overall, the Australian Dietary Guidelines are the best, most up to date nutrition recommendations we have, so follow them to the best of your ability. Like always, if you have any nutrition or diet concerns, consult a health professional, such as a registered dietitian, as the advice you receive is most likely going to exceed the quality of what you find Googling.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪||Pollard CM, Pulker CE, Meng X, Kerr DA, Scott JA. Who uses the internet as a source of nutrition and dietary information? An Australian population perspective. Journal of medical Internet research. 2015[cited 2017 June];17(8):e209. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4642382/|
|2.||⇪||Klein A, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015 [cited 2017 June];28(6):675-86. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25522674|
|3.||⇪||Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH, Ferreri S, Knudtson M, Koraym A, Waters V, Williams CL. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition reviews. 2009 Apr [cited 2017 June]1;67(4):188-205. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stefanie_Ferreri/publication/24247618_Health_benefits_of_dietary_fiber/links/00b495391040b77454000000/Health-benefits-of-dietary-fiber.pdf|
|4.||⇪||Slavin JL, Jacobs D, Marquart L, Wiemer K. The role of whole grains in disease prevention. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2001 Jul [cited 2017 June] 31;101(7):780-5. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002822301001948|
|5.||⇪||Rozenberg S, Body JJ, Bruyere O, Bergmann P, Brandi ML, Cooper C, Devogelaer JP, Gielen E, Goemaere S, Kaufman JM, Rizzoli R. Effects of dairy products consumption on health: benefits and beliefs—a commentary from the Belgian Bone Club and the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases. Calcified tissue international. 2016 Jan [cited 2017 June] 1;98(1):1-7. Available from: http://www.esceo.org/sites/esceo/files/publications/Rozenburg_Effects_of_diary_products_consumption_on_health.pdf|
|6.||⇪||Ebringer L, Ferenčík M, Krajčovič J. Beneficial health effects of milk and fermented dairy products. Folia Microbiologica. 2008 Sep [cited 2017 June] 1;53(5):378-94. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19085072|
|7.||⇪||Ruiz RB, Hernández PS. Diet and cancer: risk factors and epidemiological evidence. Maturitas. 2014[cited 2017 June];77(3):202-8. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378512213003605|