Not all clickbait is obvious — here’s how to protect yourself from sneaky nutrition misinformation

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably immune to obvious nutrition clickbait: you may initially get lured in by a catchy title, but will then get turned off if the post contains claims of miraculous detox diets or spreads one of countless nutrition myths.

But what about more subtle clickbait? These posts also use catchy titles to draw you in (yet not as wacky as obvious clickbait — e.g., no “One weird tip to stoke your metabolic fire!”), but they also reference actual scientific papers, so readers are easily ensnared. And due to the appearance of scientific accuracy, the reader won’t check the papers, which may not at all support the point the post makes! Even I have been fooled many a time.

via GIPHY

Every minute you spend on subtle clickbait is better used elsewhere: reading factually accurate articles, learning a new language, or reading a good book. Subtle clickbait is dangerous because it closely skirts the truth. Practice the following habits and you’ll waste a lot less time on subtly wrong articles.

1. Don’t confuse references with expertise

It is alas not uncommon for unethical writers to gild their articles with a veneer of credibility by referencing lots of studies. And if you just look at their titles, those studies will appear related to the topic at hand. Quite often, though, they don’t actually support the writer’s claim — frequently, they even contradict it! The writer doesn’t care: he or she knows that very few readers will have the time to check.

In fact, I just came across an example this week, on an incredibly popular nutrition website — a registered dietitian cited several studies that supposedly supported bone broth benefits, yet few if any actually said what she claimed … and some didn’t relate at all. Ugh! Such posts may garner more clicks and thus more revenue, but they crowd out more useful and accurate information.

So what about Examine.com? Throughout our website, we reference thousands of studies. But, know what? We’d have ten, twenty times as many references if we did as too many writers do: input a keyword in PubMed and reference whatever studies have titles that seem to fit.

We don’t work like that. And you know how you can be sure we don’t? Well, our reputation speaks for itself, but more importantly: you can check. You can check every single reference in every single article we’ve published. Or, more realistically, you can pick an article at random and check the references in it. Do it, do it now! You’ll see we don’t cheat and don’t cut corners.

When we reference an article, at least one of our researchers has read it. That’s what they do, most of the day, every day. For every minute spent writing, they spend at least one hour reading (and often one more arguing between themselves about the importance and relevance of this or that study). And they’ve done that for eight years now — since 2011, when Examine.com was founded.

2. Identify these three additional red flags

A 2014 study looked at three ways research often gets oversold:[1]

Animal or cell evidence. You’ll see that often, if you care to check. You’ll read a study about how this or that supplement can benefit human health, but if you look at the references, you’ll discover the supplement was never actually studied in humans — only in rats or fruit flies, or maybe on human cells in a petri dish. Animal and cell evidence have value, mind you, but they also have limitations … which too many articles choose to overlook.

Inferring causation, erroneously. Correlation isn’t causation. For instance, vegetarians tend to be healthier, so many articles claim that vegetarian diets are healthier. But we don’t know if that’s really the case, because one’s diet is only one aspect of one’s life — there are many other related factors at play. For instance, vegetarians tend not to smoke, they tend to drink only in moderation, they tend to exercise more than does the general population … all factors that could explain their being healthier.

Advice-giving. Most studies avoid giving advice in their conclusions, but mainstream articles that reference those studies are far less cautious. There are polyphenols in cacao that may be healthful, yes. We should all eat chocolate every day to optimize our health … no. If all studies were haphazardly translated to advice, everyone would be advised to take hundreds of supplements a day and would feel the need to switch to the latest studied diet every couple of weeks.

The crazy part about that 2014 study? They found that research was oversold not just in health news stories but also in the academic press releases they were derived from! Sometimes, the institutional press offices are responsible. Sometimes, the problem starts with the authors of the study, who feel the need to make things more … interesting … so that their study will get read. They may exaggerate their findings to some extent, or make claims that are consistent with, but not directly supported by, the data.

3. Understand that doctors are knowledgeable but not all-knowing

Doctors have become the frenemies of the at-home nutrition enthusiast.

Most people nowadays have at least two doctors: their personal doctor, and the superstar doctor they follow on TV or on the Internet.

Needless to say, the two docs seldom agree.

When a health issue comes up, your personal doctor sure comes in handy for testing, diagnosis, and treatment. Some personal doctors, however, may be ill equipped to answer nutrition-related questions.

Not all of them are, mind you. Doctors legitimately want to help their patients, and some, having studied nutrition, have thereafter gone beyond book knowledge through hands-on experience with their patients. But many still scorn non-pharmaceutical treatments, and some don’t like addressing potential nutrition-related issues that don’t have a clear cause or giving thorough preventive advice — just the usual “Try to stay at a healthy weight”.

That’s where the friend becomes a potential frenemy: Did your doctor say that your diet isn’t involved in your condition because it’s true, or because he or she wanted to answer your question and get on with things? Doctors are variable, just like the rest of us, so saying “Doctors are clueless about nutrition” just isn’t warranted. Consult your doctor and do your own research — get the best of both worlds.

4. Trust no one … the truth is out there

I’m not just referencing the X-Files here, I mean this literally: don’t blindly trust anyone, not even Examine.com (remember our advice above in #1: feel free to check the references in our articles, to make sure they really support what we say).

In other words, don’t adhere to the dictionary definition of trust: “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”

Don’t have firm belief. That’s when things can go awry. In fact, when it comes to nutrition, don’t have any belief at all. Nutrition is about facts, not beliefs. If you browse our website and find that our analyses seem to make logical sense, and can see that the studies we reference really do back our conclusions, then keep coming back as we add more information. And if you stumble across a mistake, please contact us so that we can fix it!

Everyone makes mistakes. Except gurus, of course. Gurus never make mistakes, and never change their minds. When new studies come up that contradict their beliefs (especially those beliefs that drive their profits), they find many reasons to dismiss them out of hand.

We don’t. We don’t simply accept any new study as the new truth, either, but we evaluate it fairly, we pit it against past studies, and if necessary, we … change our minds. That’s why all our publications come with lifetime updates: so we can make sure they’re accurate today. DAA, for instance, got downgraded to “promising” in the latest version of our Testosterone Supplement Guide. Early studies were very positive, but subsequent ones were disappointing. We were disappointed, but we didn’t stick to our guns; we bowed to the current state of the evidence, and we updated our Supplement Guide and our Fitness Guide accordingly.

We’re all just trying to find the truth, knowing full well it is an endless, quixotic quest. You’re trying to find the specific truth for your own body, and maybe for the health of your friends and family. Examine.com is a bit different; we analyze studies that seek generalized truths (typically, such studies consist in randomizing a group to receive a supplement or diet and measuring specific outcomes). Our hope is that these generalized truths can help in specific cases, such as yours. If a particular study doesn’t end up applying to you — if its generalized truth fails to coincide with your personal, specific truth — don’t sweat it. More studies have been done, and more studies will be done. The truth is out there!

And, together, we’ll keep searching for it.