Sophie Medlin is a consultant dietitian and director of CityDietitians. She has set up a petition to increase the regulation of health information online with her colleague Hala El-Shafie. (https://www.change.org/p/matt-hancock-regulate-health-information-on-social-media?recruiter=1116677116)
This piece was written in collaboration with Eszter O. Szabo, a Dietetic Assistant at CityDietitians.
How to fact-check information on health and diet?
Sophie: Fact-checking for yourself is not something recommended unless you are looking for basic information on the NHS and WHO websites. The best sources to turn to are scientific studies and reports on health and diet. Understanding these, however, can be challenging even after a 3-year science degree. They are written in a scientific language, with lots of data and statistics involved. If you have not been taught to read and understand scientific literature, you could easily misinterpret the information. It can be really dangerous, as you may act on the incorrect information causing serious health issues. Unfortunately, it is happening all the time.
Who are the most reliable sources? Why are the Influencers with millions of followers not considered as the ones?
Sophie: We recommend you visit a professional in the area you need help with or wish to know more about. Someone with eligible title and credentials. The reliable sources of information are those professionals who have the credentials to prove their degree in higher education (a minimum of a 3-year science degree). The ones who are practicing evidence-based nutrition regulated by professional bodies such as the Association for Nutrition (AfN) or the British Dietetic Association (BDA). Do monitor these two titles, ANutr or RNutr, that stand for Registered Nutritionist, and Registered Dietitian. The title “dietitian” is protected by law, meaning that unless someone has the right qualifications, they cannot call themselves dietitians.
Another seriously relevant thing to mention here is that unfortunately, doctors are not qualified to give diet and nutrition advice. For someone with a medical degree, this would be out of their scope of practice as medical education barely includes any information about nutrition (they are lucky to get about 4 hours of it altogether). Unfortunately, the title “nutritionist” also is not reliable. As the title ‘dietitian’, the law does not protect the title ‘nutritionist’ and as such, anyone can call themselves nutritionists even with a 3-day course behind them. So, it is safe to choose a dietitian most of the time.
How to avoid fake social media diet information?
Sophie: Generally, it is best not to follow such influencers. They are not qualified to advise on diet and health, and it can be very dangerous to follow in their footsteps. It is important to keep in mind that just because someone has a huge following and swears by diet products or certain diets, it does not mean they have any knowledge in the subject unless they have a science degree in nutrition or dietetics. It is also very likely that they’re only backing a certain product or diet for financial gain.
Studies show that 80% of everything you read about diet and nutrition online is false, so always start by being skeptical and asking for evidence. Until social media is bound to the same advertising regulations around diet and nutrition products and services as the Advertising Standards Authority enforces elsewhere, we all need to be vigilant against the scams.
A simple rule is: if something sounds/looks too good to be true, it normally is. Go to the RD’s and ANutr/RNutr’s (registered Dietitians and nutritionists).
What actions can we take to stop this ‘fake diet news’ trend?
Sophie: You have the power to stop misinformation on the internet. Often misinformation comes from oversimplifying certain aspects of the workings of our complex human bodies and health.
As a first step, unfollowing those influencers who share or post misinformation and not circulating their products/advice is great.
A second step is to keep your health and diet choices to yourself. Many of us think that talking about what worked for us and how we do things helps those around us, but in reality, this might actually be more harmful than good, especially when it comes to health and diet. Even though it is meant as friendly advice and help we need to remember that we are all different and just because certain choices work for you, it does not mean it will work for your friends.
Instead, try encouraging them to look for professional help and remind them of these simple rules:
- Titles are not everything, check credentials and education – Dietitian, ANutr and RNutr are the ones to look for
- If something sounds too good to be true it most likely is.
- There are no quick fixes – when you accept this, you are ready to work with a professional and move forward for your health