Hunting For Nutrition Advice? Sources Matter

Nutritionist with healthy fruit, vegetable and measuring tape working, Right nutrition and diet concept

By Kaci Westrich, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Dr. Mehmet Oz ignited a national controversy in the early 2010s by promoting garcinia cambogia. He touted the tropical fruit as a “revolutionary fat buster” far and wide, despite ultimately admitting the effects would not pass “scientific muster.”

On his tv show, The Dr. Oz Show, Oz claimed garcinia cambogia would allow consumers to lose weight without modifying their diet or exercising. As one might guess, this drew people’s attention. As a doctor, he was seen as a credible source of health information, and sales of the supplement spiked following his endorsement. However, shortly after Oz’s miracle claim, he was sued for promoting the supplement when “all credible scientific evidence” pointed toward its inaccuracy. According to the National Institutes of Health, “garcinia cambogia has been studied for weight loss, but there aren’t a lot of recent, reliable studies on its effectiveness.” Before a Senate committee, Oz admitted the effects of the tropical fruit did not “have the scientific muster to present as fact.”

The garcinia cambogia and Oz debacle emphasizes the need for consumers to obtain nutritional information from trustworthy sources who are knowledgeable on the subject. The best way to discover the merit of advice is to research the person providing the advice. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Who is the source?
    Website domains provide insight into whom is supplying the information: government organization URLs end in .gov(e.g., National Institutes of Health, https://www.nih.gov/), many organizations use .org(e.g., Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/) and educational establishments use .edu to differentiate themselves (e.g., Iowa State University, https://www.iastate.edu/).  While these URL endings can indicate increased credibility, there are also .com sites that offer valuable information. Dietitians, health professionals, and science-based organizations offer credible, reliable information on their .com sites.

    Pro tip: A good way to identify dependable sources is to check for citations that refer to published studies and research.

  • Is it a blog or social media site?
    Blogs can provide useful information, but blogs can also be the harbinger of inaccurate and misleading information. The same is true for social media. However, the platform is not as important as the source of the information.Evaluate the credentials of the person sharing the information and make sure their education matches their expertise. Look to a mathematician when you’re trying to solve an algebraic equation, a cardiologist if your ticker is acting unusual, and a dietitian when you need nutrition advice.

    Pro tip: Be sure to differentiate bloggers or influencers with credentials (such as RD, MS, PhD) from bloggers or influencers sharing their life experiences. The former will more likely share scientific information while the latter will rely on anecdotal evidence.

  • What references are used, if any?
    Look for references from scientific, evidence-based research. If the article is based on a person’s opinion, it probably is not the most credible.

    Pro tip: References concretely show the source of the information being shared online and help the reader recognize the difference between fact and opinion.

  • When was the article published?
    Nutrition information is everchanging as new research becomes available. Look for information that is no more than five to ten years old.

    Pro tip: If a site references a publication from more than a decade ago, the author may be cherry-picking the data. Use a site like PubMed.com to do your own research and check if more recent data is available.

  • Are they trying to sell you something or enhance their ratings?
    If the site is selling a related product or seems to have ulterior motives, they are most likely providing you with information to persuade you to purchase their product or to continue watching their show.

    Pro tip: Follow the mantra your parents taught you: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Health professionals – specifically those who are not trying to sell products or advertisements – are likely credible sources of information. When it comes to nutrition, registered dietitians (RDs or RDNs) are the experts.

Beware of the self-proclaiming nutritionist. Every dietitian is a nutritionist, but not every nutritionist is a dietitian. RDs must complete a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program, complete an accredited dietetic internship program with 1,200 hours of supervised practice, pass the registration exam, gain state licensure in the state they will practice, and maintain continuing education credits. The definition of nutritionist varies state-by-state. Some states require an accredited certification, while other states do not regulate the profession, and anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.

If there is a specific topic you are looking up, organizations devoted to that topic can be a source for up-to-date information as well. For example, the American Heart Association’s website is dedicated to all things related to the heart. It has relevant, current information about heart disease. The Soy Nutrition Institute offers an accumulation of soy-related research.

Finally, find two or three credible sources before reaching a conclusion. This rings especially true if the information you found was presented in a fear-based manner because that type of information is often easy to retain and believe. When it comes to our health, it is essential to seek trustworthy, knowledgeable professionals to lead us in the right direction.

Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.