These days the number of nutrition and fitness related articles in print, online, and on television is booming and there is definitely no shortage of opinions. In the spirit of unfounded opinions, I have an opinion for you: 99.999% of the nutrition and fitness information you view online, read in magazines, or see on television is factually incorrect. Here is why:
1) News must be headline grabbing. The best headlines and news stories are often sensationalized and/or controversial: recent reports have come out stating that strenuous running increases your risk of death, sugar is as addictive as cocaine and heroin, and consuming wheat may cause you to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The statement that “99.999% of nutrition and fitness related material is factually incorrect” is a little bit of an exaggeration. Really only 99.9% of this information is factually incorrect...of course I’m kidding, but saying that 99.999% of information is incorrect is much more attention grabbing than being more conservative and saying that only 80% is factually incorrect.
2) Editors are the gatekeepers of content. Ultimately the editor’s job security in today’s day and age is based on page clicks and depends upon what the readers are interested in and thirsty for. There is no appetite for mundane facts: simply stating that “diet and exercise are the keys to weight loss success and/or weight maintenance” is probably going to get no play. If, on the other hand, you report that “Big Food has taken advantage of our hunter-gatherer physiology to get us addicted to food and fatten us up,” you might be interested in reading further. Oftentimes, but not always, the content written in the media is completely incongruent with the scientific consensus (please see the Forbes article on high fructose corn syrup and the NY Times article on autism). Furthermore, if the authors do not know the editor, or do not have a connection to the publication, then how do they get their content published or their voice to be heard? You could have the most compelling story ever, but it may not matter because the editor is the gatekeeper of content and may squash your story rather than letting the facts get out.
By restricting content, the editor is simply doing his/her job of looking out for the best interests of his/her company. Every health & wellness company has a nutrition agenda or a fitness policy to promote. If the facts in a particular article don’t jive with this policy it is far easier to sweep it under the rug than to engage in a full discussion of the topic, let alone think about changing that policy altogether.
3) People writing about exercise and fitness my not be qualified to do so. I recently saw a job posting for a health content writer for a corporate wellness company. One would think that to be a health content writer for a wellness program you may have experience in nursing, nutrition, exercise science, psychology, public health or the like. What you may not expect to see as a preferred qualification is a bachelor’s degree in marketing, communication, or creative writing. What this tells me is that we value the ability to sell and communicate more than we care about the quality of the actual product. A dietetics major at Metro State University will take Anatomy and Physiology I and II, Organic Chemistry, Food Science, Human Nutrition, Nutrition and Weight Management, Nutrition Education and Counseling, Advanced Human Nutrition, and Medical Nutrition Therapy I and II (and that is not all). On the other hand, a marketing major at Metro State University will take none of these courses. Something does not quite add up here. Would you hire a dietetics major to be in charge of marketing your business? Now, I know that it would make no business sense to hire a well-educated person for a communication position no matter how much they know if they have no communication skills, but excluding those without formal education in this area is a public disservice. You do not have to have a degree in communications to be a good communicator, just as these companies are assuming you do not need a degree in a health or nutrition related field to teach the public about their health and how they should manage it.
4) There is no peer review process in the fitness media. In the science world, the peer review process is equivalent to a system of checks and balances. When a scientist submits his/her manuscript to a journal, that manuscript is reviewed by a minimum of two experts within that particular field. If the manuscript is weak, it may be rejected outright, if the manuscript is good, but in need of some clarifications and revisions, the reviewers will request these revisions to be made before reviewing the manuscript for a second time. In general, at this point, one of three things may happen: 1) the reviewers may ask for further revisions, 2) the manuscript may be rejected, or 3) the manuscript may be accepted. There are also occasions where the review process may take three, four, or even five cycles of revisions before the manuscript is accepted. This is a far from perfect process, but it does help to prevent authors from making outlandish, non-evidenced based claims.
In the fitness industry, there is no such system of checks and balances and authors are free to express their opinions, regardless of their factual value. Just because you state something in a published article, it does not mean that your opinion is fact. Moreover, just because you have credentials behind your name (MD, DO, PhD, whatever) does not mean that you are an expert on a certain topic. There are many nutritionists and personal trainers that know WAY more about exercise and nutrition than many MDs do and vice versa. I don’t really care what one rogue MD says about nutrition when the bulk of the evidence and the majority of the experts in that field disagree with him or her. There are times when the rogue expert turns out to be correct, but until there is a consensus in the field, your rogue craziness is just your opinion, one that may gain you publicity and money, but is not necessarily fact, and should not be treated as so.
The peer-review process largely prevents unfounded opinions and weak research from being published, but this does not prevent the publication of conflicting results or mean that all scientists agree with all published works. In the scientific community an additional system of peer evaluation for articles that are already published is the “point/counterpoint”. In a point/counterpoint series, an author or group of authors will submit a letter to the editor (point) in response to a recently published article they feel may be incorrect or misleading to the readers of that publication. The letter to the editor will contain a detailed point-by-point analysis of the original author’s work and will cite other scientific information to demonstrate why those points may be incorrect. The author of the original article then gets a chance to defend himself/herself by writing a rebuttal (counterpoint) to the letter to the editor’s points (point). This is a fantastic way for each author(s) to communicate his/her respective ideas on a particular issue. The unbiased reader of the point/counterpoint discussion is fully exposed to both sides of the story and is then able to draw his/her own conclusions based on all the facts. You would be surprised at how many times your opinion changes after reading the letter to the editor! Together this system of checks and balances (peer-review and point/counterpoint) makes certain that the author must have his/her facts straight lest they be embarrassed and lose credibility within the field.
5) Information is oversimplified for the reader. Information is oversimplified for the lay reader and this is oftentimes not due to the reader’s comprehension level or assumed limited knowledge of a specific topic. In addition, when an article is written in print there are space limitations. You are not allowed to “tell the complete story” because there simply is not enough page space. If the article is online, this makes it easier, but now the article is at the mercy of our short attention spans (mine included). The author may also be limited in his/her knowledge of the subject matter. The author may be very familiar with the effects of antibiotics in meat production but has no clue about the physiology of hunger and satiety. If the content is on television, there is a good chance that a 60-minute interview may be whittled down to a 2-minute clip. Not exactly a comprehensive overview of the topic is being presented, and many times this actually leads to a story that, although started off with the correct intentions, has now been simplified down to one inaccurate or misleading conclusion.
It’s impossible to be an expert in all subject areas or to only have experts write nutrition and fitness articles. However, the next time you are reading an article or watching a video on nutrition and fitness, take the advice they are offering with a grain of salt. Try to take a step back and reflect on what is really best for you, not what the “experts” want you to believe. I am not saying that 99.999% of articles out there are factually incorrect, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who says 80% are flawed.
Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD