A couple of years ago I taught a class on going vegan and I took a bunch of vegan products such as almond milk, coconut yogurt, and non-dairy cheese with me. A woman who was taking the class freaked out when she saw the almond milk and coconut yogurt because they contained carrageenan. I knew that some people were sensitive to carrageenan, and consuming it could lead to irritation to the digestive tract, but I wasn’t really sure why she was so upset that I had almond milk with me. I asked her what the problem with carrageenan was, and she said that her sister told her to avoid it, but she had no idea why. She thinks it was something she read online.
The next day I spent some time looking up carrageenan, and from what I read, there are actually no studies that show it’s bad for you. There are tests that people site, saying carrageenan was used to give animals cancer (which is a terrible thing in and of itself), but if you dig deeper you’ll find that it wasn’t actually carrageen, but something called poligeenan – a completely different substance. From what I’ve read, it looks like there have never actually been any studies at all on carrageenan. There are some anecdotal stories that show it causes stomach or intestinal irritation in some people, but there are plenty of other food ingredients that also cause digestive irritation that have not be vilified. It seems that the whole fuss over carrageenan was created by one woman with a blog. People read it, reposted it, reported on it, and a “media storm” was made.
I often hear from health coaching clients that they’re taking this supplement, eating that ingredient, or have eliminated certain foods because they read about it in a magazine or saw it on the news. One person who was transitioning to veganism suddenly got scared off her new diet because she read in a woman’s magazine that vegans are always deficient in zinc. Another person told me he was drinking three cups of coffee a day because he saw on the news that it’s good for the prostate gland. Someone else said she was considering taking raspberry ketones because Dr. Oz said it helps with weight loss. With so much information being offered to us on social media, blogs, and websites, it’s easy to get tangled up in information. When you go offline, there are dozens of magazines offering advice, not to mention those tid-bits of “health news” that are thrown in during the evening news. Do you believe them, or take them with a grain of salt?
Here are some things to keep in mind when reading online health advice:
When reading any type of health advice or news about a study that was just released, don’t take what they have to say with blind faith. It’s important to look at where the news is coming from and who funded the study. Information can be heavily skewed to fit an agenda. Was the study funded by an organization that benefits from the outcome? Was the person reporting on it paid to spin the information a little?
Keep in mind that there is always going to be a study to support any kind of agenda. One day recently articles that said that grains cause Alzheimer’s and grains prevent Alzheimer’s we both being shared rampantly in my Facebook feed. The article saying grains cause the disease was written by a big proponent of the paleo diet, while the one saying it prevented it was written by a vegan doctor. Which one was right? (My guess is neither.)
When writers report on a particular food/ingredient/ailment they’re not always backing their story up with hard facts. Remember the beating agave nectar took a few years ago? People were dumping out their bottles of the natural sweetener because a certain online health guru told them to. Others picked up on his article and started spreading the word. The truth of the matter is that, much like with carrageenan, at that time there had never been a study done on agave and how it affects people. And much like the carrageenan scare, the “reports” were based on studies done with similar substances.
Just like in everything else, there are trends in the health industry. And here by “industry” I mean the people reporting on it. The most recent trend seems to be coffee. I can’t believe how many articles I’ve seen in the past 6 months or so touting the health benefits of coffee. One even said that if you think you’re too sensitive to the drink’s caffeine content you’re just not drinking enough of it. What?? I should drink more coffee so I can drink more coffee? Huh? I can’t really say how these trends start, but I’m guessing that right now coffee sales are down and the industry is looking for a boost.
It’s also important to keep in mind that everyone with a blog, magazine, or TV show has space to fill. Some blogs share posts every day (as do some TV shows) and they need to fill the space with something. When information is shared at such a fast pace, there’s rarely time to do adequate research. And with so many blogs and magazines in existence, it’s hard to stand out the crowd. A sensationalist or alarmist article tends to get more attention than others, whether in the information is true or not.
So what do you do if you have a legitimate concern about a food, ingredient, supplement, or health ailment? Do lots of research. Don’t just get your information from one source – look around to see what others have to say. If you’re doing your research online, scour the internet. I suggest reading books on the subject, as books are often better researched than blog posts or magazine snippets. (Also be sure to check the bibliography in books, because sometime they aren’t as well researched as they should be – especially if it’s a new diet plan.) If it’s an ailment you’re looking for information on, talk to people who have had similar experiences and ask what worked for them.
While it is possible to get health advice from the internet, I suggest doing proper research to get information as you can before you make a decision to change your diet, take a supplement, or decide on a treatment. Don’t anyone’s advice unless you’re sure they really know what they’re talking about. Also keep in mind that there is no magic elixir for anything, so if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.