How to Spot Bad Nutrition Advice

Three red flags that should make you stop and question before making any changes to your diet.

Where do you get your nutrition information? Consider your answer to this question for a moment and then ask yourself, how do I know that the source is accurate?

All too often, people make major diet and lifestyle changes based on something they read or hear from a friend. While neither of those sources may be wrong, isn’t it worth making sure that they are right? There are several things your should consider before making any chances to your diet. Here are my top three red flags for bad nutrition advice:

1. Diets that demonize entire food groups without medical reason.

If you look at most of the fad diets past and present, this is the most common element. Why? Well, when one removes a large source of calories from his or her diet, overall calories tend to decrease. That’s pretty much it. There are glaring problems with this method though. First, it assumes that every member of a particular food group is bad when the truth is, there are both good and bad choices in every food group. Second, it is difficult to maintain long term and can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors such as yo-yo dieting. Third, though you might cut calories, you also cut out beneficial nutrients in the good choices within a food group.

Probably the most well known is the Atkin’s Diet. But many people are passionate that carb-rich grains are the enemy whether it be because they contain gluten, because cavemen didn’t eat them, or for a variety of other reasons. The problem is that there are plenty of healthy, whole grains that have a right to be part of a balanced diet. Whole grains have the carbohydrates and B vitamins needed for brain and muscle fuel, as well as a good dose of fiber for digestive and heart health. The evidence shows that most people benefit from whole grains in their diet, and do not become sick or overweight strictly because of them.

2. Extreme and unsubstantiated claims

“Gluten is bad for you” or “fruit has too much sugar” are just a couple of examples of popular claims that are not based on actual science.

The truth is, less than 1 percent of the population has a true intolerance for gluten, and the amount of sugar in fruit is not contributing to the excess added sugars in the American diet. There are so many examples of these sort of attention-grabbing, unfounded nutrition messages that create confusion and clutter. The source of these messages is often poorly designed research studies or a misinterpretation of the results. Here is a great video by physician and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre, in which he describes the impact that “bad science” has on our lives.

My tip for every consumer is to always question the source of the message: Has the source evaluated the evidence? Do they have the training to evaluate the evidence? Without considering the science behind a nutrition claim first, you may end up trying something that ranges from just a waste of time and money to something dangerous like eliminating important nutrients or taking a supplement that interacts negatively with a medication.

3. Sources that are incentivized by a special interest

Consider whether your source of information is ultimately selling a product, television show, book, or is paid by the food industry. You may have to do a little digging. It doesn’t always mean that the nutrition advice is bad — but it is a red flag.

There are many great sources of nutrition information, but you have to know how to spot them. Look for sources that promote a balanced, sustainable approach that’s grounded in science and not based on opinion. And make sure you understand the motives behind any person giving nutrition advice. Your health is worth the extra time and effort.

  • Casey

    The fact that people think gluten is bad for you is a very clear example of people’s perceptions being easily manipulated by what is around them without digging enough to understand even the basics of nutrition. Gluten-intolerance is a major issue for the < 1% that have it, but that doesn't make it a "bad" food. Thanks for encouraging people to dig deeper!

  • Jordan

    Very nice article… For those wanting more, Dr. Greger is a leader in scientific-based nutrition here in Boston! He’s a Physician, and doesn’t sell a thing, except the idea that food and nutrition can help prevent and even reverse some of our most debilitating diseases here in the US.