Cutting Through the Online Nutrition Hype

The Internet puts massive amounts of nutrition information at our fingertips, but not all of it is reliable Here's our plan for separating the helpful from the hype.

What do we do when we have a nutrition question? Search the Internet, of course. In a 2016 study, 85 percent of people surveyed used the Internet to search for health and/or nutrition information. But not all the information online is reliable.

“Conflicts of interest and biases can impact how information is presented,” says Timothy Caulfield, a professor and researcher at the University of Alberta, who studies health and science in pop culture and media. “We need to be cautious about how we learn online.”

Get the FACTS First. To increase the odds that you’re getting the best nutrition advice, check the FACTS (Focus, Accuracy, Completeness, Timeliness, and Source).

Good Sources on the Internet

Some examples of websites that offer reliable, science-based nutrition information:

Nutrition.gov is the central site for all food and nutrition information from departments of the federal government.

Eatright.org is the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Heart.org has the latest dietary advice from the American Heart Association.

Diabetes.org, from the American Diabetes Association, provides research-based information on preventing and controlling diabetes.

Cancer.org has the latest information on nutrition for cancer prevention.

Hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource offers comprehensive science-based nutrition guidance.

Fact-checking sites:

HealthNewsReview.org reviews health care news stories and provides criteria to help consumers evaluate health media.

Snopes.com examines facts behind trending individual stories.

Focus: What’s the Purpose of the Site? A site trying to sell you something will happily list any research supporting the product, but is unlikely to include studies that found it doesn’t work. “Not all commercial websites are bad choices for information,” says Caulfield, “but we need to be aware of the potential for bias.” Look for sites designed specifically to educate or inform. Simply looking at the web address can help (see Web Extensions).

Accuracy: Are the Sources of the Information Sound? Good articles tell you where they got their information. They may have links in the text or references listed at the bottom. Try checking the information using another site, but be careful. “We all tend to look for information that confirms what we already believe,” says Caulfield.

Verifying what you read using an independent site (like a university or non-profit) can help. And remember, if something offers a quick fix or seems too good to be true, it’s probably more hype than helpful.

Completeness: Does it Present all Sides of the Issue? Nutrition information is not one-size-fits-all. For example, grapefruit is very nutritious, but it can interfere with some medications. An article that claims everyone should eat grapefruit, without mentioning the possible drawbacks, is incomplete and misleading. “Look for independent, trustworthy articles that talk about the body of evidence on a topic,” says Caulfield.

Timeliness: How Up-To-Date is the Information? New nutrition research is being released all the time, and recommendations change as we learn more, so make sure the information you’re reading isn’t out-of-date. Online postings should be reviewed and updated regularly. Publication and review dates sometimes appear at the top of an article, but most often can be found at the very bottom.

Source: Who Wrote the Article, and Who Funds the Site? Good sites have an “About Us” page that should describe the person or organization running the site and their funding sources. A website’s source of funding can affect the content and how it is presented. Reputable sites often provide links to an author’s bio, which can help you make sure they are qualified to write on the topic, and could point to any potential bias. For sites that don’t list authors, examine the goals of the organization running the site. Some popular nutrition sites appear to meet the FACTS criteria, but have come under fire for pushing inconclusive evidence as fact or cherry-picking studies to incite fear and sell diet programs or supplements. Consider an online search of the author or site owner to see if there have been complaints made against them.

Use these criteria to identify a few reliable sites to search for answers to your nutrition questions, or use the EN-approved sites (see Good Sources on the Internet). And when you see the next big headline or trending article, make sure you’re getting the FACTS.

—Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN

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