There’s a lot of iffy advice out there when it comes to food and dieting. It doesn’t help that a new study always seems to pop up contradicting the one that came before it. Who can you really trust to give you nutrition advice you can count on? More importantly, how can you tell if a friend, loved one, or random person on the internet is giving you terrible advice? Keep an eye out for these signs someone isn’t as credible as they seem.
1. They wage war on one food or food group
Whether you call out dairy, grains, meat, or some creative combination of ingredients, blaming certain foods for distress and disease is nothing new. While cutting back on junk food to lose weight might be a completely reasonable piece of advice, for example, going gluten-free to lose weight often isn’t. Yet more and more people are cutting out gluten, research says, even though they have no medical reason to do so.
Unless there’s a legitimate need for it, most experts agree elimination diets and shunning entire food groups isn’t necessary — or healthy. Registered dietitian Keri Gans told Women’s Health it’s a bad idea to eliminate collective groups of food, because each one provides essential nutrients your body needs to work properly. People often suffer more from not eating a variety of foods than they do from failing to eliminate a specific food from their diet.
2. They promise a food can ‘cure’ you
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are plenty of claims that a certain food or group is actually magic — capable of curing all your ailments and disorders! Hyperbolic headlines don’t always intend to turn out misleading, but they make it sound like miracle foods are here to heal all wounds. In reality, a single food can’t cure you of a disease you already have. Eating 50 avocados a day won’t cure your heart disease, but eating fewer saturated fats and more healthy ones might reduce your risk of a diagnosis.
Eating the right foods — along with exercise and other positive lifestyle changes — may prevent many illnesses before they happen. According Harvard School of Public Health, many chronic illnesses and diseases are preventable. Your overall dietary choices are what matter most — not whether you’re filling your shopping cart with the latest trendy superfood.
3. They’re trying to sell you something
Be wary of people and organizations who put status and profit before scientific evidence. Supplement brands, for example, can pretty much say anything they want about their products to convince you of their necessity. Despite research that suggests they aren’t effective, people trust the false claims anyway.
Not everyone who suggests a product or even a supplement is necessarily giving out bad advice, but one major red flag you can always keep an eye out for is the “this product worked great for me personally” claim. It’s great that Supplement XYZ magically transformed one person’s life. But assuming what worked for them will automatically work for you is just twisted thinking.
4. Their ‘evidence’ is all anecdotal
“Let me tell you a story about how this new diet changed my life.” It’s probably a great anecdote, and your friend or family member may truly have benefited from it. Be happy for them. However, proceed with caution when these conversations turn from casual to persuasive. It works the same way when celebs and authority figures push their experiences onto desperate audiences.
Fitness programs and diet plans often rely on testimonials to promote their effectiveness — but you can’t be sure they work until you try them for yourself. They’re not telling you why something is effective — they’re just persuading you to take the next step. Science is a key foundation of good nutrition advice. Without it, it’s just a good story.
5. Their science is sketchy
All nutrition advice should come with evidence to support it — but it has to be credible. One reason it’s so hard to differentiate the good nutrition advice from the bad is a general misunderstanding of nutrition research as a whole. Whether they’re doing it on purpose or not, self-proclaimed experts and well-meaning friends alike often draw and share conclusions about nutrition that just isn’t accurate.
Solving this problem might come down to learning where to find — and how to interpret — scientific research for yourself. On The Media’s Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Health News Edition breaks down 10 simple rules for reading about nutrition online. You can trust research published in peer-reviewed journals. Studies conducted on large groups of humans tend to suggest useful findings. Most importantly, one study doesn’t mean a conclusion is proven fact. The more credible research studies a person can present to back up even just one claim, the better.
6. They push the idea that one size fits all
“Just eat a piece of fruit, you’ll feel better.” But what if you don’t? Along with personal anecdotes, generalizing nutrition advice doesn’t always help. Every body is different, even in the way it digests and converts food into energy. Some research even suggests people metabolize the same foods in different ways. So telling someone to eat more fruit won’t necessarily help them lose weight or feel less fatigued. It might help some people — but not everyone.
Generic nutrition advice is not only unhelpful, but it also doesn’t actually address any specific problems you’re experiencing. Telling someone to eat a banana is not going to stop them from ordering a McChicken. True, reliable nutrition advice caters to the individual — and it often takes a certified professional to diagnose and treat medical and behavioral issues related to food.
7. Their credentials don’t fit their advice
Anyone can call themselves a nutrition expert — that’s not likely going to change. It’s the licensed professionals giving advice outside their scopes of practice that might be hurting you more. Sometimes, the most brilliant physicians get it wrong — simply because they don’t specialize in a field that requires exceptional nutrition mastery. They may mean well, but if they don’t have a solid nutrition background, they shouldn’t be your go-to expert.
The most reliable nutrition advice will come from someone with an R.D. or R.D.N. credential, or a doctor with clinical nutrition experience. Registered dietitians are the experts educated and trained to dish out evidence-based advice on food and diet. And many dietitians actually work directly with doctors to make sure patients are getting the best care possible. They’re equipped to answer all your questions, help you interpret the latest nutrition research, and guide you toward making the necessary changes to live your best and healthiest life.