If you’re looking to make changes to your eating habits for weight loss, managing a chronic condition, or just trying to improve your health, you might begin to look for ideas or answers online. A Pew Research study found that 72% of adult internet users say they have searched online for information about a range of health issues. But, is that health information reliable? In fact, 64% of Americans report “some” or “a lot” of trust in health information from the internet.
How to Determine if a Website is Credible
When you enter a question into the search bar on the internet, numerous website links with information will try to answer your question. Keep the following items in mind when deciding whether to trust the information or not:
1. Who sponsors/hosts the website? Trustworthy sites provide a way to contact the owner with questions or feedback. If you look at the URL does it end with:
a. .gov: this indicates it is a US government agency
b. .edu: indicates it is from an education institution
c. .org: usually identifies a non-profit organization
d. .com: is a commercial website
2. Who pays for the site? If the site is funded by ads, they should be clearly marked as advertisements. If a business pays for the site, the health information may favor that business and its products.
3. Who wrote the information? If an author is listed, is the writer an expert in the field? If not, are experts interviewed and included in the story? Did anyone review it? The content pages should have links or references to the sources of the information.
4. Why was the site created? Is the mission or goal of the website sponsor clear? A trustworthy website has one goal: to give you good information.
5. When was the information written? Depending on when the information was written, it may contain outdated information. Sometimes you may find a review date that shows the last time the information was verified.
6. Does the website offer a quick and easy solution? Does the website sell a product or service?
What about Social Media?
If you’re scrolling through social media, you may see on your Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok account a story about how someone tried a new diet or pill and lost weight or improved their health. These stories are likely opinions. Remember each person is unique and what works for one, might not work for all. Just because you see it’s posted doesn't mean it’s true or scientifically verified. Registered dietitians say that consumers receive the most nutrition misinformation from social media with the top three sources being: 1) Facebook 2) Instagram and 3) TikTok. Social media personalities or “influencers” are abundant on various platforms and they provide nutritional information with or without being a registered dietitian. One study found that 77.6% of participants did not check the nutrition Instagram influencers’ accreditation and 74% did not check the nutritional evidence of a recipe from the Instagram influencer.6 A study to investigate whether Instagram profiles can be reliable sources of information and knowledge about nutrition and dietetics found overall quality of the content was poor, with almost 95% all posts as low or very low quality.7
Who Should You Trust for Nutrition Information?
There seems to be confusion of who or even what to trust. Seven in ten people believe changing nutrition information makes it hard to know what to believe.8 So, who can you trust to give you the correct information regarding food and nutrition? About 66% of Americans trust information from a conversation with a registered dietitian or personal healthcare professional. Reputable websites include:
- United States Department of Agriculture
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- National Institutes of Health
- Food and Drug Administration - Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
- Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
- Government health agencies
- Professional health organizations
- Nationally recognized healthcare systems
Instead of following the advice of an influencer, friend, neighbor, or co-worker with no nutrition training, seek out credentialed experts who have the education and training. In the US, the title “nutritionist” may encompass individuals with a broad range of credentials and training in nutrition such as registered dietitians or certified nutrition specialists. In over a dozen states, certain qualifications must be met before an individual can call themselves a nutritionist. In states that don’t regulate the use of this term, anyone with an interest in diet or nutrition may call themselves a nutritionist. Before consulting a nutritionist, you may want to check whether your state regulates who may use this title. You can also seek out professional advice from your doctor or specialist.
Knowledge is Power
Once you’ve found reputable information or advice, consider what you’ll do next. If you decide to make a change to your eating habits, ask yourself, is this advice realistic? Is this something I would do on a regular basis? The most helpful nutrition information is tailored to your needs and interests. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
1. Pew Research Center. The Social Life of Health Information. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/15/the-social-life-of-health-information/
2. Health Information National Trends Survey. Brief 39: Trust in Health Information Sources among American Adults. Available at: https://hints.cancer.gov/docs/Briefs/HINTS_Brief_39.pdf
3. National Institute on Aging. Online Health Information: Is It Reliable? Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/online-health-information-it-reliable
4. National Library of Medicine. Evaluating Health Information. Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/evaluatinghealthinformation.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_id=may4
5. Pollock Communications and Today’s Dietitian. What’s Trending in Nutrition. Available at: https://www.lpollockpr.com/in-the-news/a-decade-of-dietitian-insights-forecasts-a-future-of-food-innovations/
6. Tricas-Vidal HJ, Vidal-Peracho MC, Lucha-López MO, Hidalgo-García C, Lucha-López AC, Monti-Ballano S, Corral-de Toro J, Márquez-Gonzalvo S, Tricás-Moreno JM. Nutrition-Related Content on Instagram in the United States of America: Analytical Cross-Sectional Study. Foods. 2022 Jan 17;11(2):239. doi: 10.3390/foods11020239. PMID: 35053971; PMCID: PMC8774557.
7. Kabata P, Winniczuk-Kabata D, Kabata PM, Jaśkiewicz J, Połom K. Can Social Media Profiles Be a Reliable Source of Information on Nutrition and Dietetics?. Healthcare (Basel). 2022;10(2):397. Published 2022 Feb 20. doi:10.3390/healthcare10020397
8. International Food Information Council. 2002 Food and Health Survey. 18 May 2022. Available at: https://foodinsight.org/2022-food-and-health-survey/