Raina’s Wellness: Deciphering today’s health information


These days it seems that everyone considers her/himself a health expert.  The internet has become a whirlwind of health advice.   Many of us go online to look for a remedy for a medical condition or for tips to lead a healthier life.  While it’s great to have this access, it can be hard to know where to start and whom to trust.  This guide will help you learn what to look for in your quest for dependable information.
Know your source
This might seem basic, but it is crucial to know where your information is coming from.  This will help you understand their intentions and better interpret their information. The “About Us” section on a website is the first place to start. This gives information about the mission/purpose of the organization, their funding sources, and what type of people are on their staff or advisory board. All of these facts will help you decide if their values align with yours.  Here is a breakdown of what type of information you can expect from your sources.
1) Blogs
Most blogs are written by an individual who is telling a personal story.   They share their successes and challenges and give recommendations for others.  The limitation here is that blog authors often are not experts on the topic.  While a diet may have worked for them, it might not produce the same results for someone else.  Consider blogs a jumping off point. Did you find a great article about the successes that a blogger had with a gluten-free diet? Awesome!  Now it’s time to do more research to see if it’s right for you.
2) Government sources
These sites are sponsored by various federal organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.  They are designed to provide quality, comprehensive information on a variety of topics.  A big plus is that these sites are usually current and updated often.  While generally reliable, keep in mind that no source is completely unbiased and the private sector does influence government recommendations. For example, various food industries always play a major role in development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
3) Nonprofit organizations
These groups have websites that support their health mission.  For example, the American Heart Association provides resources for individuals to learn how to live a lifestyle that supports a healthy heart. There are non-profits for most diseases as well as non-government funded scientific research. While many of these sites do provide quality information, some of them highlight unreliable or biased research.  Look at the bottom of their articles to see the sources they use and always double-check something that seems fishy.
Quality of Information
Once you know where your information is coming from, it’s important to have a sense of its quality and trustworthiness. The following points will help you to assess the reliability of what you read.
1) Scientific studies
Research from academia and scientific organizations is crucial to learning more about health and medicine. Yet, these studies are super confusing for most people to understand.   A few important things to look for include sample size, length of the study and funding sources.  In general, studies that included more participants (larger sample size) and studied individuals for a longer amount of time produce more reliable results.  Also, research can be skewed to present a certain view. Make sure to check the funding source to determine potential bias.  Sponsors should be listed at the end of the study.  While funding does not necessarily indicate a bias, it is important for you to know who had interest in the study results.
2) The good and the bad
Articles should give you the whole story.  When an author is speaking about the benefits of a treatment or diet, they should always include the potential side effects.  This is especially true when talking about drugs and supplements, which always carry the possibility of negative side effects. If an article only talks about the good stuff, you should be skeptical and seek out additional sources.
3) Timeliness
Science changes quickly and health advice should reflect the latest data.  For example, we now know that low-fat diets do not guarantee weight loss.  This surely contradicts advice from several years ago.  As new science becomes available, health sources should change their content.  Check the date the article was written as well as the “last updated” date at the bottom of the webpage.
4) Credentials
It’s important to know who is writing the article.  Common abbreviations for health experts include MD (Medical Doctor), PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), and RD (Registered Dietitian). There are a ton more and you should always search for the meaning of credentials you don’t recognize. This provides insight into their education and knowledge of the subject. While it is important to know that the author is educated, no credential guarantees accurate and unbiased information. Do a Google search to find out more about the author’s work and values.
Privacy Policy
There are tons of websites out there that can create diet recommendations or offer personalized supplement plans based on your health information.  This can be helpful as your sex, age and medical conditions will influence the best plan for you. However, it is vital that you check the website’s privacy policy before giving any personal data. The site should clearly state that your information will not be shared with a third party.  Some sites will disclose that they use only your demographics for marketing purposes, which is generally harmless. However, personal health information should never be shared.  If you disagree with their policies, do not fill out their questionnaires or provide them with any personal information.
Trusted Resources
There are tons of good resources out there, although as I’m sure you’ve caught on, none is perfect.  Here are a few sites I recommend for thorough and quality health sources.
The Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
Medline Plus (NIH), http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/
Harvard School of Public Health, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/
Lastly, it is important to remember that you should always check with a physician or health professional before making a major change to your diet, exercise or medications. Even if you found the best resources online, your doctor will help to put things in context  based on your individual health needs.  Good luck with the health hunting!

Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree in nutrition and public health from the University of North Carolina. She is also a registered dietitian. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at [email protected].

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