There is a proliferation of health and nutrition information on the internet these days, and it’s hard to know which is the good information and which is not. Anyone can purchase a web domain name, post a bunch of information on it, and present themselves as an expert. This does not mean they are an expert, have the degree they claim to, or have any clue what they’re talking about.
There are various of types of health and nutrition sites out there. The main categories include the following:
- Government health and nutrition sites. These include the sites for the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and the Department of Agriculture. While some make the argument that these websites have an agenda (and in reality, everybody does, whether it’s a positive agenda or a negative one; “agenda” just means that you have a purpose for what you are doing), the information on these sites is generally written by experts in the field, has sources listed, and is not trying to sell you something.
- Health blogs. These are generally kept by someone who feels they have something to offer the world in the health field. The blogger may or may not be an expert, have a degree in the field, and may or may not have evidence to back up their claims.
- Websites kept by universities, health organizations such as research hospitals, and professional health organizations. Similar to government sites, they generally exist to provide information, are maintained by experts, and aren’t directly trying to sell a product, though they may offer services and products in a separate online shop.
- Privately maintained websites. These are kept by individuals, small organizations, etc. They vary in quality. May be reliable, or may be thinly disguised sales pitches for a “cure-all” product.
There are many others, those most frequently found. Since all may be reliable, however many are not, what are the things to look for in a health-related website?
- Does the information have sources listed; are these sources readily available, easy to find, or even in existence? A website with no sources, no links to similar information, or that is linked to a source by the same author or organization, (“As I said in my book, Carrots: The Miracle Vegetable,” etc.) likely is not a good source. If you want to dig further, sites that use sources that are not well-footnoted or that are clearly opinion pieces, are generally not reliable.
- Does the website use a lot of negative language, ALL CAPITAL LETTER CLAIMS, different color text to emphasize points, or bash other websites, organizations, or people? Someone who has good information to back them up does not need to personally attack others, unless the other party is providing information that is downright dangerous. Even then, the refutation should be polite and calm, and with good sources to back it up.
- Is the website selling something? For example, if you find a website that is called Vitamin-C-Can-Save-Your-Life.com, and they have lots of links to their shop where they sell vitamin C tablets, drink mixes, food additives, supplements, and snack bars, then this is probably a sales pitch, not a reliable site for information.
- Is the person maintaining the site (especially in the case of blogs or other privately owned websites) a credentialed person? Do they list in their “About” information where they obtained their degree, what this degree is, or what their experience in the field entails? For example, did they graduate from Harvard Medical School, or do they just have a mysterious “Dr.” tacked to the beginning of their name? Doctorates can be legitimate medical doctor degrees, or they could be in philosophy, engineering, or even an honorary doctorate for charity work. “Nutritionist” is another deceptive title. It can mean someone who has a masters degree and carries a certification from a prestigious organization, or it can mean someone who went through a minor three-month certificate program.
- Related to the sales-pitch site, does this site claim that a particular product can change your life? Can it cause you to lose weight, keep you from developing cancer, cure headaches, help you live longer while erasing the effects of aging, and make your high blood pressure, high cholesterol and arthritis disappear, all with one teeny capsule? Odds are, it won’t! Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Save your money. Especially save your money if this site claims that the government has been covering this cure up, or that they are the ONLY site that sells it. This means that they are probably the only ones that can test it for safety, too!
- Is the only evidence offered for the reliability of the site a collection of glowing testimonials? Remember that there is no reason why the owner of the site couldn’t have written these themselves.
Much of this would appear to be common sense, but the best advice to anyone is to read ANY information on the internet with a critical, logical eye. Do not get sucked in and buy something without researching it elsewhere; don’t fall prey to testimonials claiming that this person or site saved their life.