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Dietary Information: Separating Fact From Fiction
It used to be that your doctor was the only source of diet advice. Books, magazines, TV, radio, supermarkets, health food stores, and the Internet are just a few places where you can find it. But it may leave you wondering whether what you are reading is reliable and accurate.
Lots of money is spent each year on unproven treatments. They aren't all scams, but many do lack evidence. They can lead to drug interactions and toxicities. When a person uses unproven treatments, they may also be skipping standard ones that may work better. This would allow a health problem to worsen.
Here are some sources of misleading advice:
These are products taken by mouth that have a dietary ingredient, such as a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb, or botanical. These products do not need to be proven safe to the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) standards. They also don't need to prove to the FDA that their claims are truthful before it appears on the product. The FDA can look for safety problems after a product is on the market.
You should also know that each manufacturer's product may be different in terms of strength. Also, if one brand is effective, that does not mean another brand will be. Another concern is that people think these products are harmless when that many not be the case. Supplements can be strong and must be used with care. Check the FDA's website for warnings and safety information.
Herbs and botanicals have been used for centuries. But they have only recently had studies done to look into how well they work. If you are thinking about trying a supplement, it is best to search for study data from reliable sources to learn whether there is data to back up its use. Natural and Alternative Treatments is one database that has information on over 350 herbs and supplements.
The Internet is the biggest source of dietary information and misinformation. Its content isn't regulated by any governing body. It also does not need to follow any rules. This means that a person or company can post false information to sell harmful products.
Look for information from well-established and reputable sources. Visit government agencies, such as the FDA and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Department of Health and Human Services has many websites that cover topics like diet, physical activity, and health problems. Professional organizations are also helpful, such as the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Medical Association. Non-profits like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society are also great sources.
A Note About Credentials
Your doctor likely has diplomas hanging on the wall. You won't always find that when looking for dietary advice. Look for the credentials RD (registered dietitian) to make sure you are getting advice from someone who has had formal training. RDs must complete 4 years of undergraduate study in nutrition at an accredited university, a postgraduate internship, and then pass a national exam to earn the credential. Visit the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website to find an RD near you.
Search for someone with the credentials ND (naturopathic doctor) when you are looking into alternative treatments. NDs must complete 4 to 5 years in a program that focuses on natural therapies.
The Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (FANSA) is a coalition of food scientists, nutritionists, and researchers. They have put together a list of red flags to help consumers tell fact from fiction. Here are some things they want you to look out for:
- Promises of a quick fix—We'd all like to lose 20 pounds in 2 days, but that just can't happen.
- Claims that sound too good to be true—Claims that a product or diet can cure an illness or boost your metabolism are usually unfounded. Also, look out for claims of a secret formula. This is a clue that quackery may be at work.
- Recommendations based on a single study—A single study, no matter how well-designed, is not enough to make a recommendation.
- Dramatic statements that have been disproved by scientific organizations—Manufacturers often use stories and testimonials from other consumers and celebrities to convince us that a product works. These should not take the place of scientific studies or consensus among scientists.
- Lists of good and bad foods—Most RDs agree that there really are no good and bad foods, just good and bad diets. One food will not make a person overweight or unhealthy. One food will also not bring about weight loss or better health.
- Recommendations made to help sell a product—An RD may recommend a dietary supplement to you, but stay away from anyone who gives dietary advice and then tries to sell you a product. That is a conflict.
- Recommendations based on studies published without peer review—Scientific studies in medical journals go through a review before they are published. If someone is quoting studies while selling products, ask to see the studies. Check out where and when they were published.
What If You're a Victim?
If you think you have been the victim of quackery, you have a few options. If you think a product has caused harm to your body, call your doctor right away. For other problems, the National Council Against Health Fraud and the FDA are good organizations to turn to with questions and complaints. If the product was ordered by mail, your local post office might be able to help. In the end, knowledge is the best way to defend yourself. You will be much less likely to become a victim of quackery.
Food and Drug Administration
National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health
Dietitians of Canada
Clancy C. Online tools help patients find good health information. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: http://archive.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/120208.html. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Dietary supplements. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/food/dietary-supplements. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Flaherty J. Debunk the junk. Tufts University website. Available at: http://now.tufts.edu/articles/debunk-junk. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Herbs at a glance. National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health website. Available at: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Naturopathic doctor licensure. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website. Available at: https://aanmc.org/licensure. Accessed November 5, 2021.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board
- Review Date: 11/2021
- Update Date: 11/05/2021