Return to Index
Dietary Information: Separating Fact From Fiction
The days when people received all dietary information from doctors have come and gone. The technology explosion has made health information more accessible to more people than ever before. Books, magazines, television, radio, supermarkets, health food stores, and the Internet are just a few places where dietary information and advice are available. But how can you know if the source is credible and the information is accurate?
Dangers of Unproven Treatments
The federal government estimates that billions of dollars a year are spent on unproven medical treatments.
This isn't to say that all unproven treatments are fraudulent. However without scientific evidence, medical professionals can't know for sure if the treatment actually worked or not. Potential dangers of unproven treatments include drug interactions and toxicities. The possibility also exists that using unproven remedies can delay the use of established treatments, thus allowing a disease to worsen.
The following are some areas that are particularly susceptible to misleading claims:
Because herbal supplements are considered foods rather than drugs, they are not subject to the same approval criteria by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result, there is no governmental oversight of manufacturing or of herbal effectiveness.
Products from different manufacturers may be different in potency and may not be directly comparable. Even if one brand of herb has been shown effective, this does not guarantee that a competitor’s product will perform as well. An important misconception is that since they are natural, they are harmless. This may not be the case, especially if they are mixed or taken with over-the-counter or prescription medications. Herbs and supplements can be powerful and must be used with caution. Check the FDA's website for warnings and safety information on dietary supplements.
While herbal remedies have been used for centuries, only recently have studies been designed to test their efficacy. Searching for test results in legitimate sources is the best way to learn whether scientific studies support the use of a given herbal remedy. Natural and Alternative Treatment includes information on over 350 herbs and supplements.
The Internet is a flourishing area for dietary information and misinformation.
There is no governing body or set of rules overseeing the content on the Internet. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent anyone from using it to peddle false information and promote fraudulent products.
Well-established and reputable sources include government agencies, such as the FDA and Department of Agriculture (USDA), professional organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Medical Association, and non-profit organizations, such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and the American Diabetes Association. The Department of Health and Human Services has several websites with information that covers a wide range of topics, including diet, physical activity, diseases, and research.
A Note About Credentials
Your doctor probably has diplomas hanging on the wall. You won't always find that when looking for dietary advice, particularly when it comes from a source outside of the traditional healthcare setting. To be sure you are getting advice from someone who has training in a wide variety of topics, one option is to look for the credentials RD (registered dietitian). Registered dietitians must complete 4 years of undergraduate study in nutrition at an accredited university, a postgraduate internship, and then pass a national exam to receive the RD credential. If you are seeking a nutrition counselor, see the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website to locate a registered dietitian near you.
If you are investigating alternative therapies, you may want to look for people who have the initials ND after their names. This signifies that they have been trained as a naturopathic doctor, which usually includes 4 to 5 years in a program that emphasizes natural therapies.
Red Flags for Consumers
The Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (FANSA) is a coalition of food scientists, nutrition professionals, and researchers. To aid consumers in evaluating nutrition and health reports and advice, FANSA has issued a list of red flags of junk science. Included in the list are:
- Recommendations that promise a quick fix—We'd all like to lose 20 pounds in 2 days, but history (and biology) continue to prove that it is just not possible.
- Claims that sound too good to be true—A claim that a particular product or diet can single-handedly cure an illness or work miracles on your metabolism is usually unfounded. Also, beware of claims of a secret formula, another clue that quackery may be at work.
- Recommendations based on a single study—A single study, no matter how well-designed, is not adequate as a basis for definite conclusions and recommendations.
- Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations—Manufacturers of fraudulent products often use anecdotes and testimonials from other consumers, as well as celebrity endorsements, to convince consumers that a product works. These should not take the place of scientific experiments or general consensus among scientists.
- Lists of good and bad foods—Most reputable nutrition professionals agree that there really are no good and bad foods, just good and bad diets. One food alone will not make a person overweight or unhealthy, nor will one food alone bring about weight loss or better health.
- Recommendations made to help sell a product—A registered dietitian may recommend a dietary supplement to you, but beware of any practitioner who gives dietary advice and then tries to sell you a product. That is a conflict of interest.
- Recommendations based on studies published without peer review—Scientific studies published in reputable medical journals undergo a thorough review process before publication. If someone is quoting studies while promoting 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 several options. Most importantly, if you think a product has caused you physical harm, contact your doctor right away. Otherwise, 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. Ultimately, knowledge is your best defense. An informed consumer is 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 March 17, 2016.
Dietary supplements. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/default.htm. Updated March 15, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Flaherty J. Debunk the junk. Tufts University website. Available at: http://now.tufts.edu/articles/debunk-junk. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Herbs at a glance. National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/herbsataglance.htm. Updated January 7, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2016.
Licensed states and licensing authorities. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website. Available at: http://www.naturopathic.org/content.asp?contentid=57. Accessed March 17, 2016.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 03/2016
- Update Date: 03/17/2016