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4 Ways to Make Good Health Decisions


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Salt is bad for you. No, salt is fine. Floss after every meal. No, flossing is actually bad for your oral health. And so on. People are constantly bombarded with health news that is conflicting and confusing, leaving them unsure whether well-established health advice is actually trustworthy.

Consider the case of red meat. Heavy consumption has long been linked to heart disease and other illnesses. That is until just recently when the Annals of Internal Medicine published research concluding that there is no compelling evidence that people stand to benefit from eating less red meat. There’s also the curious case of the egg, which has been both celebrated as a staple of the American diet and maligned as a contributing factor in cardiovascular disease several times over.

Although these are only a few examples, the way they shape our lives is striking. The problem is that the rigor for most health studies is not the same as those for clinical trials for pharmaceuticals, yet they still find their way into mainstream health conversations. One of the key limitations to the way health news is presented is that it’s difficult to translate insights and observations into meaningful action across entire populations when the depth and length of research generally don’t stand up to statistical scrutiny.

Understanding the Conflict

There’s a reason Men’s Health magazine has tens of millions of monthly website visits and the Journal of Men’s Health does not. The former packages health answers in quick, easy-to-digest articles, while the latter is a peer-reviewed academic journal focused on more in-depth research — the kind of presentation that doesn’t lend itself to capturing today’s readers. The value people place on types of content plays a huge role in what does and doesn’t gain traction on the internet and, therefore, what types of content health news publications continue to create.

Internet content is crafted with different goals. There’s no doubt that some of it is designed to inform, but the vast majority is made to drive engagement, solicit clicks for ads and sell subscriptions. When editorial teams find topics that achieve those goals, they create more and more content built from that template.

Unfortunately, it can misinform and cause some readers to make poor short-term decisions for themselves. Just think about the craze over cleanses. Fasting for 24, 48 or 72 hours has some benefits, but the fervor surrounding specific ingredient cleanses — like the cayenne cleanse — can yield unreasonable expectations and set people up for disappointment. Fad diets and yo-yo cleanses don’t add up to become a healthy lifestyle. Instead, they lead readers to lose faith in incredible research and science that is so crucial to health news and information.

With so much misleading and incomplete information circulating around the internet, it can be difficult to know what to trust. To contextualize health news and make good decisions, there are a few tips we can follow:

  • Ask who’s behind the content and what the goal is.

The people who conducted the study, the writer, the editor — who are they? It might not always be possible to understand the motivations of the publishers, but looking into their backgrounds and specialties can shed light on their qualifications. Think about the latest red meat study, which we now know was led by a man who neglected to disclose his ties to the meat and food industry.

Remember that most online articles exist to drive traffic, not inform readers. When you come across a story that doesn’t link to a specific study, copy the claim or statistic and do a quick search on PubMed, an online database of research studies with non-biased funding, to see whether you can verify the claim being made. So much web content is built in the form of digestible bits — there can be a lot of factual errors or incorrect assumptions that slip through the cracks. Just as concerning, key pieces of information can be obscured or misrepresented in order to further an agenda. That being said, there is good content out there. To separate those articles from the bad ones, do a little digging.

  • Examine the claims and methodology.

If something feels oversimplified and the story has no contextual data, it probably isn’t worth your time.

Just start with the headline, which might not always reflect the conclusion of the story it’s discussing. Consider a recent headline warning that hospital lights could increase death risks in patients dealing with heart disease. What that headline didn’t say was that the study was limited and only conducted on mice.

As another example, most diet studies rely on a limited survey of what people ate over the past six months. Usually, these are weaker than studies based on food journals because people forget. I can’t remember what I ate for lunch four days ago, let alone over the past six months.

Understanding the operational chain at news outlets (or websites masquerading as news outlets) can sound an alarm when something feels off. Many writers do not create the headlines for the stories they author. Often, that responsibility falls on an editor or a social media manager. In that handoff, that person might write something punchier than the substance of the story, misrepresenting the issue in the process.

  • Check the date of the study — not the date of the article.

In an ideal world, online content could be trusted to be an accurate reflection of the latest and most important updates in the world of health. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some publications are known to create new articles based on older studies, passing them off as if they touch on the latest information. But sometimes the information presented has since been debunked.

It’s important to check to see whether the information is new and verified. If it has been disproven since the original study’s publish date, be sure to closely analyze everything coming from that publication and/or partner publications going forward. Credible sources will link to the original study, so you should usually be able to find the full brief within two or three clicks. If the piece does not include a link, that should be a red flag to continue reading with a bit of caution.

  • Evaluate the scope of the study.

By default, checking the following details can help you separate clickbait from credible research.

  • How many people were in the study?
    Were there 12 or 12,000? The number of participants makes a massive difference in determining whether the findings are statistically significant and relevant or whether the small population misrepresents the findings as more relevant than they can claim to be.
  • How long did the observation or testing take place? 
    If the study is about the immediate effects of a treatment or change, it might make sense to observe for a few days or even a week. Most of the time, however, when making decisions for your health, it’s more critical to look for longer-term studies and solutions. Insights derived from long-term longitudinal studies are more substantive and reliable — even if the headline on the article isn’t as punchy.
  • Were the variables isolated? 
    Too often, studies examine singular factors by design but overlook key factors that also have an impact. Diet studies, for example, observe changes to food types or calorie intake without realistically assessing individuals’ needs. For example, they might follow the standard recommended average for an adult but fail to factor in whether the individuals in the study exercise rigorously or not. They might even only evaluate individuals who do not exercise, so any change to their dietary approach could have a more dramatic impact than the average person would observe.

With so much misinformation circulating on the internet, it’s important to understand how we can differentiate the good articles from the bad ones. Examining motivations, breaking apart the claims and methods used, checking the timeliness of the information and discussing the findings with trusted friends and colleagues can equip us to contextualize the information and judge the usefulness for ourselves. When we take such steps, we help ensure the health news we digest is truly right for us.


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