How to avoid nutrition misinformation and myths

Food fads, misleading supplement claims and fake nutrition news are everywhere we look. Whether in print, online or in our social media feeds, many of us know that ads promoting a miracle pill are not credible, but what about when a doctor or celebrity promotes the latest diet or weight loss fad? Nutrition information can be confusing, particularly when recommendations seem to be constantly changing and are in conflict with what we were taught or believed, sometimes for years, to be true.

Making sense of it all can be a challenge. To help save you time and money and to protect your physical and mental well-being, here are 8 common misleading nutrition tactics to look out for:

1. Miracle claims

These are outrageous claims that a secret strategy, a quick fix, or a superfood has exaggerated health benefits. These usually sound too good to be true, because they’re not true.

Examples: Drink alkaline water to prevent osteoporosis or lose 17 pounds in 22 weeks with green coffee bean extract.

Why we fall for it: Many nutrition claims use pseudoscience that sounds plausible. The claims are designed to be highly appealing for specific health conditions and provide false hope that one can achieve results without long-term lifestyle changes.

2. Selling products

This type of health misinformation is based on miracle claims, but the main goal is to drive profit. These often involve endorsements from celebrities, influencers, “medical experts” or even celebrity doctors, who benefit financially from pushing these products or services.

Examples: Supplements claiming to boost immunity, longevity or burn fat.

Why we fall for it: Psychological studies show that we can be subconsciously conditioned to create positive associations with celebrity-endorsed products. From an evolutionary perspective, we may be wired to follow prestigious and influential people.

3. Glamourizing restriction, pushing diet culture and the thin ideal

Research shows that these types of messages and the promotion of rigid dietary rules or eating patterns can be damaging and contribute to disordered eating behaviours.

Examples: Diets with severe caloric restrictions or a specific eating pattern, or the use of “good” vs. “bad” food language.

Why we fall for it: Many social media platforms normalize and promote harmful health messages related to body image and dysfunctional health-related behaviours, which are promoted as something to strive for.

4. Focusing on a limited number of foods that don’t address lasting change

Eliminating entire food groups also eliminates essential nutrients that are important for optimizing physical and mental health.

Examples: Fruitarian diet, the grapefruit diet and the carnivore diet.

Why we fall for it: The rules of these diets are simple to remember, but they only promote caloric reduction, which is why they may work for short-term weight loss but are not sustainable in the long-term.

5. Blaming a single-nutrient or food

Although there is clear evidence that our health is impacted by numerous factors, including our environment, genes, psychological health, lack of sleep, medical issues and medications, many still believe that controlling one aspect of diet (for example, limiting added sugars), can permanently modify weight or protect from illness.

Examples: Dairy or soy cause cancer, gluten causes leaky gut, fat or sugar cause heart disease.

Why we fall for it: Humans are complex biological, psychological and social beings. While it’s easy to reduce the development of a chronic condition to one single nutrient or cause, which implies that there is an easy fix, nutrients and diets don’t work in isolation. Additionally, single nutrients or foods are not solely responsible for chronic diseases.

6. Claims to cleanse or detoxify your body or balance your pH

Your body doesn’t require external support to detoxify, because we have our own natural detox system, including the kidneys, liver, immune system, lymphatic system, lungs and digestive system. If we need to “detox” in a hurry, we also have built-in emergency mechanisms to protect us: vomiting and diarrhea! Additionally, by choosing nutrient-dense foods most of the time, such as the Mediterranean diet, which doesn’t require much work to “detoxify”, you should never feel the need to cleanse.

Examples: Detox teas, juice cleanses, celery juice and alkaline water. Cleaning enemas. Eating non-food items like clay and activated charcoal.

Why we fall for it: These approaches are often endorsed by celebrities and pseudo-health professionals who are only interested in making money. Importantly, cleanses and detoxes can be very dangerous and in rare cases, have resulted in severe nutritional deficiencies and even death.

7. Generalizing statements

Well-meaning friends or family may recommend a diet or supplement that has worked for them. However, their advice doesn’t take into account an individual’s specific medical, psychological and social situation, who might “fail” to see similar results and blame themselves instead of the ill-advised recommendation.

Examples: One diet fits all.

Why we fall for it: One of the most powerful forces that can lead us to adopt a new approach to self-care is a recommendation from someone we trust. However, diets and nutritional advice from friends and family are notoriously misleading, because they’re usually based on one person’s unique experience (anecdotal evidence) instead of scientific evidence (empirical evidence).

8. Using testimonials and anecdotes as evidence

The scientific process is not based on one individual’s experience or other anecdotal reports, such as, “Eating dark chocolate every day helped me lose weight”. Evidence for the effectiveness and safety of a product or diet is gathered over time and must be based on unbiased research studies, often involving thousands of subjects. High-quality studies should include an active treatment group and a control group (they continue with their usual diet or they’re given a placebo treatment), for comparison. A handful of people who are financially compensated for their testimonial is not evidence that a diet or product is effective.

Examples: Using “personal stories” or a professional title (which might not be real) to promote or sell a product.

Why we fall for it: “Social proof” is a psychological phenomenon where individuals tend to conform to what they think everyone else is doing, especially if they’re uncertain of what they can do to help themselves. This can be used as a marketing tactic to influence consumer buying behaviours.

What can you do instead?

  • Speak to a trusted professional. A registered dietitian’s work is rooted in the scientific process, they have studied nutrition science in university and they are members of a regulatory body, to ensure their knowledge is evidence-based and up-to-date. They can help you to weigh the pros and cons of various approaches and personalize their recommendations to your unique situation.
  • Learn how and where to find credible online information. What are the credentials and qualifications of the author? Do they present a neutral tone, free from hidden agendas? Is it coming from a reputable association?
  • Actively seek out multiple perspectives to make sure you are not forming a cognitive bias or being swayed by a search algorithm that may only provide results (and ads) supporting one view.
  • Learn the basics of how the scientific process should work. This will help you understand the strength of the evidence. Excellent, light-hearted books, such as Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre or The Science of Celebrity… Or Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Tim Caulfield explore pseudoscience in healthcare, media and beyond.

If you have additional questions about nutrition misinformation or myths, speak to a registered dietitian at Copeman Healthcare.