The ultimate guide to filtering through health information and health claims
Updated: May 11, 2021
As a healthcare provider, I encounter the effects of health misinformation every day. Patients tell me how they read about how milk is unhealthy for the human digestive system, or how sugar is poison. Because of the many instances I see and hear of false health claims in the media and from the mouths of my patients, clients, and even friends and family members, this is why I am so passionate about helping people to see through the claims. This is why I am so eager to teach others about health misinformation and how to see through it.
But if you don't take time to research the claims made in the latest documentary or news headline, then you may believe health data that is false or misleading. In turn, you may make lifestyle changes to reflect such claims which may have long-term impacts on your physical and/or mental health long-term. Therefore, read below to learn more about how you can gain confidence in yourself and your ability to filter through health information, so you don't fall victim to false claims.
What is health information?
Health information is any data related to the overall condition of the body that has been obtained through investigation, study, or instruction (1,2). Therefore, health misinformation is any health-related claim that is false based on current evidence-based research (3). Unfortunately, with the advent of social media, false health data and claims have become rampant.
This has led to many people believing false health claims that at their most innocent has made people believe things like carbs make you fat. But at their most harmful, health misinformation has led people to believe that the current global pandemic of COVID-19 is not real or is not a big deal, which has put people lives at risk. The types of health misinformation found on social media most often include claims about smoking products, drugs, vaccines, and diseases (4).
What can help reduce the spread of false health information?
You would think that by providing accurate, evidence-based information that you could convince people to stop believing the false health claims that they see or hear about. However, research shows that emotions and bias can render such true health data ineffective in convincing people who believe false health claims (3).
Therefore, it leads to the question of how can we stop health misinformation from spreading?
A recent study shows that in order to stop health misinformation from spreading, it will not only require figuring out who is vulnerable to false claims, but will also require figuring out how to stop the spread of false claims through the internet (3). Therefore, it will involve systemic change including showing people how believing such claims may be hypocritical to their values, determining the consequences of believing false claims, and finding a way to counteract the false claims with evidence-based research.
What are some common types of health misinformation?
Health misinformation comes in many forms in the media. A 2020 study reveals four major types of health misinformation that include (5):
Direct to online sources
Direct to online sources include health claims that are in articles on news websites. However, the quality of the health data on websites depend on whether they are reputable sites like National Institutes of Health, Mayo Clinic, or the World Health Organization, for example, versus a personal blog written by a health enthusiast with little to no health or scientific background.
Search engines include health claims that come up in keyword searches that involve confirmation bias from the start. For example, if you have fatigue, and you believe that a certain medicine is causing it, then you may search the name of the medicine and the keyword “fatigue.” Chances are that you will find some blog article at the very least to support your theory. This confirmation of your preconceived belief is known as confirmation bias. This type of bias is very harmful since it can blind someone from the real truth of a situation and in turn impact the health of their body and/or mind.
User-generated content can lead to confirmation bias since personal blogs or social media posts that anyone can create don't necessarily contain accurate or evidence-based information. For example, someone may post online that they were able to cure their health problems by drinking green juice everyday or that their relative was able to cure their cancer by starting a plant-based
diet (6,7). Even though there is no evidence-based research to support either of these claims, people may believe it if the user provides convincing before and after pictures, makes a touching video, or simply if the viewer is desperate for a solution to their health ailments.
Finally, mobile apps can either be helpful or harmful in combating health misinformation. For example, studies show that 95-percent of cancer information aimed at health care workers contained valid health data, whereas only 32-percent of cancer information aimed at the general public contained valid health data (5). It's hard to figure out if such apps contain evidence-based knowledge unless you are an expert in that subject matter. The average consumer could easily find themselves believing health claims on an app because the look of an app or story behind the app may seem professional or credible.
Who is at risk for believing false health information?
No one is immune from believing false health information. However, a 2020 study reveals that some people may be more at risk than others in believing false health claims. Such individuals fall into one of the following groups (8):
Deficit hypothesis: This type of person believes false health claims because they do not have enough knowledge or literacy to distinguish between true and false health information. This literacy is not necessarily the ability to read and understand certain terms, but it can be the lack of ability to distinguish between reliable news information, advertisements, or manipulated photos on social media and websites otherwise known as digital literacy.
Confirmation bias: If people have preexisting beliefs about a health topic, then they are more likely to only believe claims that align with those beliefs. In turn, it is hard to convince such people that what they believe may be false, even if you present contradicting evidence to them.
Neglect to reflect about the truth: Some people may simply not consider that the health information they see online or on television is not the truth and they don't take the time to find out if it is or not. This is seen often by healthcare providers whose patients or clients bring health claims to them that they saw in documentaries or on a blog. The client may believe the claim to be true when in fact it is supported only by opinion, misleading claims, and junk science in many cases.
How can you prevent yourself from becoming a victim of false health information?
I want to start off this section by using some of my favorite quotes to explain the major causes of believing false health claims:
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."- Albert Einstein
Some people may find long words or lots of terms you can't pronounce impressive. It can provide the illusion of intelligence. With the advent of spell check and thesaurus programs, it doesn't take much effort for someone to create such intimidating sentences. However, through my years of writing I've come to learn that it is much harder to explain something complicated in a simple manner than it is to use “big words.”
For many of the articles I write, I use what is known as the Flesch-Kincaid scale to help ensure that my articles are as readable as possible to the largest audience. Therefore, if you see an article that uses a lot of terms you don't understand, it doesn't necessarily make that article or its claims true. Instead, be open to learning what those terms mean and do your own research. Use reputable sites like PubMed to find trusted evidence-based research on health and science topics.
"Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance." - Plato
It is hard to step outside our comfort zones to look at another point of view. Especially when that point of view is different from your own. But you have to remember that your opinion is not always fact. Your opinion is often based on long-held beliefs that you may have acquired from family members, friends, people you admire, your faith, or your politics, for example. It's like the quote by Jim Rohn says that,
"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."
Therefore, if you live in a household that believes that vaccines are harmful, then you will most likely grow up believing that, regardless of any evidence you encounter. But this is an opinion likely based on your household's experiences with vaccines. Perhaps they had a loved one who had a harmful reaction to a vaccine, so they think all vaccines are bad. But if they stepped outside of their comfort zone of opinion and opened their mind to evidence-based knowledge, they would learn that vaccines have helped prevent millions of deaths over the past century and harmful side effects are extremely rare (9).
Or if a person contracted a virus and did not feel any harsh symptoms, then they may not think it’s a big deal. In turn, they may believe that they don’t have to get a vaccine or take precautions to protect others from the virus. However, if someone had a loved one die from that virus, then they may be more willing to take safety precautions to protect others and themselves from the virus. Our experiences shape our beliefs.
"Admission of ignorance is often the first step in our education." - Stephen Covey
Like many things in life, it's impossible to learn and grow in knowledge if we don't first acknowledge that we were wrong in our initial thought. The reason why it's possible that so much health misinformation exists is not so much for lack of knowledge, but lack of willingness to accept being wrong. Human beings don't like to admit they're wrong. They don't want to show any signs of weakness.
This is especially true in humans that have low self confidence or feel a lack of control in their life. Psychological experts reveal that people with such low sense-of-self can find the reality that they are wrong life-shattering (10). These type of people would rather create the distorted illusion that what they believe is true so that reality becomes less fearful or threatening to live in. In cases like these, instead of presenting such people with data, the person first needs to face their emotions and fears. They need to explore why they believe a certain claim and ask themselves if a certain experience or fear is the basis for such a belief.
It may be hard to get through to such people unless they are willing to explore their feelings. An article in the peer-reviewed, evidence-based Oxford Review reveals that to change one's opinion in certain cases, the person will need to (12):
Receive information through experience that there is a mismatch between their beliefs and the evidence in the world around them. For example, if someone thinks all dogs are mean because they were once attacked by a dog, but then meets a dog that is friendly and loving, then their long-held core belief that dogs are mean will start to unravel.
Respond in an emotional and intellectual way to the information in the world around them by noticing when their beliefs don't match with evidence. Once a person encounters a situation that doesn't match with their beliefs time and time again, for example meeting another friendly dog after another, then they will hopefully start to see how their belief may not be grounded in fact.
Value the new perception they are realizing with the new information they are finding that mismatches with their previous beliefs.
Organize their new findings in a way so that they can fit with their core values. This may require changes in their core values to fit with the new findings. If someone realizes after much experience that dogs can be kind and that not all dogs are mean, than they may have to change other values such as "having a dog as a pet is unacceptable" or "places that are dog-friendly are bad."
Characterization of the new belief into the self. This occurs once a person has accepted their new value with no hesitation or thought.
This process will have to be a voluntary process to be successful, but perhaps repeated exposure of the
person to information that opposes their false beliefs can start the process.
Red flags that health information could be false
It may not be clear at first sight if health information is true or false because beautifully-
made infographics and very convincing before- and-after photos may make some health claims hard not to believe. But there are some red flags you can look for to help you separate fact from possible fiction such as the following (12,13).
Claims that offer quick fixes. An example of this would be like "Lose ten pounds in ten days if you follow this diet." This is impractical and not all bodies will respond the same to the same regimen.
Dramatic warnings of danger if one follows a certain regimen. An example of this may be "If you eat carbohydrates, you will gain weight and be at higher risk of heart disease." This claim doesn't take into account that no one food can cause weight gain on its own and that there are many factors that contribute to weight gain.
Recommendations or claims made from a single study. Just like a person can likely find something online to support whatever they believe, it's also pretty easy to find at least one study that supports a claim that a company wants to make. But that one study may have a small sample size, may be out of date, or may have since been found to be false or misleading due to more recent and larger, randomized controlled studies. So, it's important to make sure that a claim is supported by multiple, high-quality, up-to-date studies.
Claims have been debunked by reputable health experts. If a claim is repeatedly debunked by reputable scientists or experienced healthcare providers, then you should question that claim.
Lists of "good" and "bad" foods. If a claim tells you to cut out food groups or tells you that certain foods are "always bad" or "always good" then this is a red flag because all foods in moderation can fit into a healthy, balanced diet.
Stating that research is "underway" a.k.a. research doesn't currently exist. If there is no research at all to support a claim, then you cannot confirm if its true or not.
Endorsements versus evidence-based research. If a claim has only or mostly celebrity endorsements to support it rather than evidence-based information, then the claim is very questionable.
The website making claims contains more products than evidence-based information supporting the claim. If a website making a claim is full of products for sale that you "need" to buy to have success with a certain diet routine or program, then it's likely not a reputable program.
Outdated information is the only information supporting the claim. If the only research supporting a claim is ten years old or older, then you should not trust it. This is because research is happening all the time and especially in the nutrition field, information becomes outdated in a matter of years. Therefore, there is likely more recent research out there that could confirm or deny the claim.
Hyperlinks on site are not evidence-based or reliable sources. If the hyperlinks in an article or in a website links to mostly personal blogs, advertisements, or the website's other articles, then it's validity may not be trustworthy.
Final note on filtering through health information
Health information is everywhere you look. And if you don't have a discerning outlook on such data and claims, then you can become a victim of health misinformation. In turn, false health claims can lead you to making decisions about your health and the health of those in your inner circle that may not be wise or safe. Therefore, use this guide as a starting point to help you take a deeper look at the health beliefs that you currently hold and discover if they are beliefs that have trusted evidence to support them. Your health, and the health of others that trust you, depend on the accuracy of such beliefs.
Merriam Webster (accessed May 3, 2021) "Health." https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/health#:~:text=%3A%20the%20condition%20of%20being%20well,condition%20or%20state%20of%20something
Merriam Webster (accessed May 3, 2021) "Information." https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/information
Sylvia Chou, W. Y., Gaysynsky, A., & Cappella, J. N. (2020). "Where We Go From Here: Health Misinformation on Social Media." American journal of public health, 110(S3), S273–S275. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305905
Suarez-Lledo, V. and Alvarez-Galvez, J. (2021) "Prevalence of Health Misinformation on Social Media: Systematic Review," J Med Internet Res, 23(1):e17187.
Swire-Thompson, B. and Lazer, D. (April 2020) "Public Health and Online Misinformation: Challenges and Recommendations." Annual Review of Public Health, Volume 41: 433-451.
Chiochetta, M., et al. (April 2018) "Green Juice in Human Metabolism: A Randomized Trial." J Am Coll Nutr., 27:1-7. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2018.1457458.
Molina-Montes, E., Salamanca-Fernández, E., Garcia-Villanova, B., & Sánchez, M. J. (2020). "The Impact of Plant-Based Dietary Patterns on Cancer-Related Outcomes: A Rapid Review and Meta-Analysis." Nutrients, 12(7), 2010. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12072010
Scherer, L. D., & Pennycook, G. (2020). "Who Is Susceptible to Online Health Misinformation?." American journal of public health, 110(S3), S276–S277. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305908
Geoghegan, S., O'Callaghan, K. P., & Offit, P. A. (2020). "Vaccine Safety: Myths and Misinformation." Frontiers in microbiology, 11, 372. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2020.00372
Winch, Ph.D., G. (November 3, 2018) "Why Certain People Will Never Admit They Were Wrong." https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201811/why-certain-people-will-never-admit-they-were-wrong
Wilkinson, D. (accessed May 3, 2021) "The Ultimate Guide to Changing People's Beliefs, Values and Emotional Reactions - The Affective Domain." The Oxford Review Briefings, https://www.oxford-review.com/blog-ultimate-guide-changing-beliefs-values-emotional-reactions/
Bellows, L. and Moore, R. (September 2013) "Nutrition Misinformation: How to Identify Fraud and Misleading Claims." Colorado State University Extension, https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/nutrition-misinformation-how-to-identify-fraud-and-misleading-claims-9-350/
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (reviewed June 24, 2011) "How to Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers." https://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/How_To_Evaluate_Health_Information_on_the_Internet_Questions_and_Answers.aspx