It’s impossible to be online these days without encountering a health claim of one kind or another. On Instagram, people deliver ominous warnings and sweeping promises every day. Over on YouTube, self-anointed experts are detailing bizarre diet plans and uniformed fitness prescriptions. And all of it is annoying the #$&^ out of Dr. Rachelle Reed.
Dr. Reed is Orangetheory’s senior director of health science and research. She earned her PhD in kinesiology and completed postdoctoral training in exercise psychology. So she takes it personally when people with no expertise start steering the public down fruitless or dangerous paths. So she makes sure her social feeds are full of pointers and tips that debunk worthless claims and hokum solutions.
We sat down with Dr. Reed for some guidance on how to navigate the landscape of fake health advice. She offers five powerful tips.
1. Be wary of headlines that use buzzwords like ‘proven’ and ‘causes.’
Content creators and influencers often use catchy titles to lure you in, so be diligent in looking beneath the surface. Let’s break down these overutilized buzzwords:
· Proven: In health science research, very few concepts have enough high-quality evidence to actually prove something. Real scientists use phrases like research suggests, rather than proves.
· Causes: Cause-and-effect relationships are difficult to examine in humans when it comes to health behavior change. Instead, we often see researchers investigating relationships between two variables, to look for correlations. Make sure not to confuse the two concepts! One example often used to teach this concept is that murder rates and sales of ice cream both increase at the same times of the year. Just because a coincidence happens doesn’t mean one of the variables necessarily causes or has any effect on the other.
Along these same lines, be sure to read the entire article or caption, rather than allowing the headline alone to sway your thought patterns. The details often tell a less dramatic or sensational story than the headline would lead you to believe.
2. Go to the source.
The responsibility of a claim falls on the author. If a content creator is making health claims or recommendations without any links to the evidence to support them, that’s a red flag! A higher-quality article will often refer you back to a primary source — links to a journal article, a quote from an expert, etc. When time permits, dive deeper into the primary sources to learn more.
3. Don’t look only for information that supports what you want to hear
We are big proponents of both intentional learning and doing your own research! But, it can also be difficult to remain objective while doing so. Confirmation bias, or our tendency to favor evidence that reinforces our current beliefs, can often limit the evidence we find while doing our own research. It all comes down to how you search for information. For example, the search “is walking worse than running” will likely pull up information that confirms the searcher’s existing belief, as opposed to a search for something more objective, like “the impact of walking on health.”
4. Check the credibility and qualifications of the writer/influencer/content creator.
What experience or authority does the content creator have to provide you with health information? If the author is relying solely on anecdotal evidence, is telling you what worked for them, or is selling you a product or service, without offering any scientific evidence, that’s a solid indication to look elsewhere. On the contrary, if the writer has specific expertise, credibility, or experience in this area, they may be better equipped to provide you with objective, evidence-based information.
5. Look for the nuance!
Science-based health information is almost never “one size fits all.” There are very few health-based topics that always work the same way for every person in every situation. Professionals with specialized or advanced education are often trained to explain the nuance associated with a health or science claim. That’s why many science experts may start their answers with “it depends.”
So, where can you find trustworthy, evidence-based health information?
Scientists and researchers do a lot of the heavy lifting for you — they combine results from the highest-quality studies into literature summaries, like systematic reviews and meta-analyses. These resources are generally great places to begin your reading, as they’ve typically been vetted by experts and present a more objective status of the evidence on the topic at hand.
And, subscribe to our YouTube Channel to hear science-based health and fitness advice delivered by trusted industry experts from Nike, the American Heart Association, WW and more.
Health literacy takes time and practice. With these new tools, you’re better prepared to approach a catchy headline or health claim with your eyes wide open!
*To learn even more about how to separate health facts from fiction check out this episode of 'Under the Orange Lights' on Orangetheory's YouTube.