Got a health concern? A severe illness? Want to prevent cancer? By all means, do your research. Knowledge about health advice is power, after all.
We’re bombarded with stories these days about health “breakthroughs” of all kinds. There’s the miracle food, or the one that should be classified as “poison”. Sometimes the same food is featured in opposing articles. Then there are all those “systems” that people have developed to cure what ails ‘ya. How wonderful it would be if we could trust everything we read.
Some of it really is accurate, so don’t assume it’s all fake news. The key is sorting out the good, the bad, and the “keep an open mind but don’t jump in with two feet”. Here’s what you need to consider:
How Did You Find It?
How did you find the article? Was it a popup with a sensational headline and a shocking photo, or were you searching for it? If you searched for it, was it at the top of the results with this “Ad” logo? Does it directly speak to your question or is it a little off-topic? Be clear on what you want to know, so you can sort through and toss the results that are irrelevant.
Consider the Source
Different types of publications have different goals. Many are trying to generate clicks, so their information is more about grabbing your attention. Others are legitimately aiming to educate. As you read through the health advice you found, is it pointing you to a specific product or service? If so, the author may be laying the foundation for a sale. Some of it may be exactly what you need, some may be a waste of your money, and some might be dangerous. Remember, the goal of the source should weigh into your takeaway.
Now, not all sources are in it for the money, they are just geared toward different things. Is it a blog based on opinion or someone’s experience, or a website describing scientific studies? Keep in mind, if someone is obviously sharing their experience, that’s all it is. The motive isn’t necessarily to deceive, but what they’re offering is definitely different than someone with an expertise in a field.
What’s The Basis For The Claim?
I’m going to give all purveyors of health advice the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume they all truly believe in their message and want to promote it for the good of mankind. That is fantastic. Unfortunately, the best of intentions aren’t good enough when it comes to your health and what you put into your body.
Understanding why they want you to believe something is very important. Do they claim to be more enlightened than “experts” because they have thought it through in depth? Did they do their own research? Did they gather other people’s research?
Is it Valid?
People’s self-reports of a problem or its solution are worth considering, but not exclusively. Sometimes there are enough claims of an effect that it prompts research, and in some cases can change viewpoints of those who make recommendations. Their experience can be part of your equation, but there’s good reason not to jump right in with both feet.
Some “solutions” are based purely on a theory, or a set of ideas that seem to make sense in explaining something. Theories can range from the far-fetched to those with compelling logic based in well-established knowledge. Theories, are not, however, definitive answers, and need research to back them up. In some cases you will see the claim is that ABC is “causing” your problem, and XYZ is the cure. The reality is rarely that simple, and it’s easy to attribute an effect to something when it was really something else. Without controlled studies to identify those things, you are reading about a theory. That’s all. That’s where clinical studies come in.
How Research Works
In a nutshell, researchers will test a theory by establishing a specific question to answer that would logically be true if the theory was true. Good studies will do everything possible to isolate the variable of interest from any other possible influences, and control for any other things that could explain the result.
When they crunch the numbers, they will be able to say if it is likely or not (through statistics) that X influenced the outcome, and it wasn’t just a fluke of chance. This will be described as strength of a relationship, but not a cause. Research demonstrates when there’s compelling evidence, but those statistics will never say without a doubt that the result was caused by X. There will always be a sliver of a chance that something else came into play that wasn’t on their radar.
This is why you should be wary of terms like “prove”, “clinically proven”, “fool-proof”, “proven method”, etc. Quality research won’t use those words.
Does your source throw around scientific-sounding terms that you can’t find in any mainstream publication? Is it a real term but taken out of context? If that substance, thing (or whatever the fancy word is) were really so powerful, why wouldn’t the big-money research organizations already know about it? Wouldn’t they want in on such an earth-shattering breakthrough? There’s probably good reason you don’t find big name organizations talking about it.
The Telephone Game
When you read the article, check the links (if any) they point to. Is it referring directly to an original study or someone’s take on it, or a summary, linking to another summary, etc.? The farther away from the source, the more skeptical you should be. Remember the telephone game? Passing a story from one person to the next to the next ends up with something totally different.
Case in point: “Chocolate Cures Cough”. How many times have you seen that health advice circulating? I realize many people shared it because wishful thinking makes this one funny, but the original author of the research that sprang from even said the claim is a “complete fabrication“. The story that was floating around was someone’s take on a summary of a summary, and so on.
Do you come away feeling more confused than when you started reading it? Does it seem like all you find are conflicting results that you can’t explain? Be sensible about what you read, and of course, it can’t hurt to consult a doctor or licensed nutritionist who’s current on the research.