Health Hype vs. Reality: Too Good to Be True?? A Layperson's Guide to Evaluating Health Content
Bacon with everything. Grass-fed butter is better. Bulletproof coffee (with butter!). Eggs eggs eggs. Saturated fat is bad for your arteries...just kidding - it's not! Sugar is the devil! A glass of wine a day will help you live longer. A calorie is a calorie. I could go on... These statements are the kind of hype we frequently hear in the media. What makes them so appealing is that they tell us things we want to hear, things that we think are bad for us but, lo and behold, a "recent study" rectifies something we so badly want to be rectified. It makes choices that feel luxurious suddenly seem ok, even good.
Some folks casually believe everything they hear. The news said it, so they hold it as truth. You already know you aren't this person. You know that news and other information sources are often fraught with sensationalism, hype, and sometimes, depending on the source, downright lies. Even social media is abuzz with nutrition "experts" - some of these truly are educated, good-hearted people who know their stuff, but many others are wolves in sheep's clothing - influencers looking to make a quick buck pedaling the latest "teatox."
So when you hear these claims, how do you know if you can believe it? I know I've been around long enough to see the pendulum swing fully in my thirty-six years on several different issues - fat consumption, eggs, butter, dairy consumption, artificial sweeteners... Think about it: What are we doing right now that the will be the "sweet and low" of the future (i.e., the current nutrition media darling soon to be pariah when follow-up studies link it with cancer, heart disease or any other malady)?
Here's my step-by-step guide to discerning fact from fiction:
Read the article/listen to the whole story. The headline is meant to grab your attention and probably has a little more hype and sensationalism on purpose to make sure you wait through that commercial break. Go ahead and listen to or read the entire piece to get the full (perhaps less hyped up) version.
Who is telling us this information? Could this person (or group) have a vested ($$) interest in making this claim? What are their credentials? If you don't know, look it up. Even scholarly articles published in professional journals may be funded or conducted by researchers who are directly or indirectly involved with an advocacy group or company. Their intentions may even be good - they truly believe what they are telling us - but this doesn't necessarily mean that the study is unbiased. And on that note...
How well designed was the study? Was the study performed by the "gold standard" - a randomized controlled trial? (This means that the participants are randomly assigned to an experimental group that receives the treatment in question or a control group, which does not...bonus points if it's double blind meaning that neither the participant nor the researcher knows which group each participant is assigned to, which helps to eliminate bias.) Even better, has this study been repeated, and preferably on a wide variety of demographic groups (studies are often performed on university students, which is a far cry from being highly representative of the general population)? Moreover, is it part of a literature review in which the results of many similar studies have been aggregated to create robust and meaningful interpretations? Please never underestimate the importance of this!! Often we hear catchy headlines but if we dig a little deeper, we find out that the study in question was performed on a small group of homogeneous people and has not yet been repeated. This is certainly not to say that studies should be discounted! Absolutely not - researchers dedicate their lives to creating health and medical advancements that save and improve lives every day. All I'm saying is to put your thinking cap on first, and ask yourself if this makes sense.
Does the research flagrantly fly in the face of what we have been told before? If a study is in direct opposition to what you've heard before, you might want to slow your roll a bit. Revisit the one above - are we jumping the gun and reversing years of health/medical/wellness data on the basis of a single, mediocre study? Or has new evidence convincingly found that previous assertions were misguided or perhaps themselves based on faulty data?
Similarly, does it eliminate an entire category of something (e.g., carbs) or, on the other hand, completely glorify something else to the exclusion of other things (e.g., all you need to be fit and healthy is yoga)? (YOGIS: I AM NOT KNOCKING YOGA!! IT'S AWESOME.) Headlines that completely trash (or glorify) categories of food, exercise, or the like are catchy and intriguing. Let's be honest -people can be lazy. We are inundated with more information than we ever have been. When we hear something so freaking simple, it's so tempting to want to be like - yes! I've found my Holy Grail! I will eliminate carbs and do yoga and I. Will. Be. Fit!! Again, careful. Overly simplistic answers are rarely the right ones.
Does it sound too good to be true? Whenever I hear people talking about eating bacon and (organic, free-range, of course) eggs (inevitably fried in organic grass-fed butter), I just think 🧐. Something about it just gives me pause. If it gives you pause too, or just sounds too good to be true, you might want to dig a little further. Perhaps you will be pleasantly surprised. But perhaps it will be like when they told us that fat was the food of Satan, which basically meant eating a whole box of Snackwell's was cool because no fat, right? Unfortunately, life is complicated and so are the answers. They are rarely cut and dry, and they will change as the amazing people who dedicate their lives to medical and wellness research continue to study and find more. All I'm saying is to listen to the whole thing with a discerning and skeptical ear, and dig deeper when necessary. This may require asking your medical or wellness professional, who may honestly also be overwhelmed by the abundance of new information we receive each day.
Finally, each body is different. What works for one person might not work for you. Drinking bulletproof coffee may make a celeb or YouTube influencer feel amazing, but it might not for you. That's ok. If there is something that you are truly interested in, speak with your medical and/or other health professional to see if this could be a possibility for you, and give it an honest to goodness try...which leads me to my most important take-away:
When you try something, really try it. Don't treat your body practices like dating on Tinder - fully embrace what you and your health practitioner have decided to try, whether it's eating a plant-based diet, reducing dietary cholesterol, increasing resistance training, or whatever moves you, and do a real experiment. Try to put your horse blinders on to the other information that will (inevitably) trickle in so you don't flit from one thing to the other when you aren't getting instant success. And be a good researcher - do legit research and actually track your data, whether quantitative (numbers) or qualitative (thoughts, feelings, descriptions), before and after to fully understand how this new health practice affects you!
If you need help deciding what is right for your body, or interpreting a new study, please feel free to reach out to me!
In good health,