By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
There are more ways than ever to get nutritional advice, from blogs, gyms, products, and well-intentioned friends. How can you tell if you are receiving credible information? I reached out to some fellow dietitians to help you spot advice that is not worth your time (or money!)
1. No mention of research: Good nutrition advice lets you know what evidence there is to support it or if it’s based more on theory than science. But bad advice either doesn’t follow the research or uses a single study (or cherry-picked pieces of information) to support it.
“The reason many people have a hard time spotting bad advice is that they have no science background,” says Rosanne Rust, RD, author of the Calorie Counter Journal For Dummies. “Someone with some knowledge of chemistry or biology will think: “Hmmm…that doesn’t sound right.”
There is no need to get a degree in science, simply ask for the research behind claims. If they quote one study, ask them if that reflects all of the science in the area. If they act flustered, you know they haven’t done their homework.
2. Strong, unsupported claims: A big red flag for nutrition advice is strong statements saying X causes Y. For example, if someone tells you eating carbohydrates will cause belly fat, watch out.
“If people understood this word and used it correctly (carbohydrates), this statement would mean one could only eat meat,” says Lisa Raum, RD, owner of RD to GO, LLC. “When nutrition advice demonizes colorful foods – like fruit – it’s all the more cringe-worthy!”
Scientific research demands a high standard to prove true cause and effect, so always be wary. Ask the person giving the advice to elaborate. Which carbohydrates? What support do they have for their strong claims?
3. The advice is only supported by anecdotes: Danielle Omar, MS, RD, says the bad advice she hears most often is: “this worked for me, so it will surely work for you.” And what parent hasn’t received unsolicited advice from grandparents, including, “Well, when you were a baby, I did…” adds Elana Natker, MS, RD.
While what someone else is doing might very well work for you, it might not either. And this advice should never overrule science-based information that shows it doesn’t work (or may even be dangerous).
4. One-size-fits-all advice with no flexibility: I’m always skeptical when I hear very strict rules that don’t allow for personal preferences or individual lifestyles.
“Some personal trainers may ask clients to shun all white foods,” says Rust. “Limiting processed grains is one thing, but lumping them all together is another, and living on vegetables and cottage cheese is ridiculous and unbalanced!”
Bottom line: If the advice is too strict and leaves “you” out of the equation, it will be difficult to maintain.
5. Extreme defensiveness: Bad nutrition advice is almost always defensive and dismissive of any new research (or institutions) that go against its central argument. “When someone tells you that the government, medical industry, or pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know certain ‘secrets’ because it would prevent them from making money, that’s a watch out,” says Raum.
Look for someone who is professional, open to differing opinions, and has credentials to back up their talk.
6. Quick-fix promises: Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, cautions people against programs that make outlandish promises or guarantees like “No matter how many times you’ve failed, this program will…” or “You don’t have to change a thing! Just continue to eat your favorite foods and…!”
Bottom line: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
7. Simple nutrition advice from doctors: If you or a family member is diagnosed with a nutrition-related disease such as obesity, diabetes, or heart disease, watch out for simplified advice coming from doctors. This might include no sugar, eat small portions, or outdated Xeroxed copies!
“I see several newly diagnosed diabetics from Hispanic or Caribbean cultures coming to me for their first visit under the impression that they can no longer eat rice,” says Kathy Gorman, MS, RD, LDN. “I’m not sure what the doctor actually tells them, but the message they hear is: ‘Rice is a very bad food that should be avoided.’ Asking someone to completely cut out a food that is a staple in their diet and a core part of their culture just isn’t fair—and it isn’t necessary!”
Cut to the chase and ask for a referral to a registered dietitian. They will look at the big picture, spend time educating you, and provide customized advice. Most doctors simply don’t have the time or specific nutrition knowledge to counsel on diet.
With the vast amount of information out there, it pays to be a skeptic and dig until you find the credible information you deserve. What bad nutrition advice have you received lately? Share your stories in the comments below or in our Food and Cooking and Diet communities.