In this unit, we’ve already discussed how to fact-check health claims encountered in the news or on social media and how to assess expertise in the field of nutrition. On this page, we expand our information literacy toolkit to include strategies for searching for accurate sources of health and nutrition information. These approaches become more important if you’re seeking answers to a specific question, writing a paper for a class, or building your knowledge base for personal or professional reasons. In these scenarios, you need to do more than fact-check single claims or bits of nutrition information that come across your social media feeds. Instead, you’ll need to sift through and assess many different resources, and you’ll find that it’s helpful to build a list of trusted sites and organizations that you can head to when you want to look something up.
Imagine that you’re curious about the safety and efficacy of a nutritional supplement. You do a quick internet search, which yields pages and pages of search results. Among them are links to news articles, peer-reviewed studies, hospital and university websites, government agencies, blogs, sites selling supplements, YouTube videos, online discussion threads, and more. You can’t read them all, and nor would you want to. Where do you even begin?
If you’re researching the safety and efficacy of a nutritional supplement, you probably don’t want to start by reading 100 peer-reviewed studies or a bunch of different opinions from individuals. That approach is overwhelming and time consuming, and it leaves you vulnerable to misinformation. Instead, you’ll want to start with trusted websites that summarize the scientific consensus, such as these from the following sources:
- Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other websites ending in .gov, like PubMed and MedlinePlus.
- Colleges and universities, such as the Harvard School of Public Health (websites ending in .edu).
- Well-known healthcare and hospital systems, such as Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic (websites usually ending in .org).
- Professional organizations, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Cancer Society (websites usually ending in .org).
We mention website domains because .gov and .edu sites are generally accurate sources of information. However, .org and .com domains are a mixed bag. Sites ending in .org generally represent organizations, including some of the trusted organizations listed above. But organizations can also be biased, and their sites may be more focused on pushing a certain agenda than representing the scientific consensus. In fact, any entity can buy a .org domain. Likewise, .com websites can be valuable sources of information, or they may be more interested in selling you something. When you encounter a .org or .com site, you’ll want to do more digging to understand the site’s intent. If an organization is unfamiliar to you, practice lateral reading (e.g., a Wikipedia check) to learn more. Keep in mind that organizations can represent many different interests, and biased organizations can have names that are deceptively official-sounding.
Beyond investigating the organization, corporation, or individual behind a website or article, here are some other aspects to evaluate:
- Timeliness — How old is the article? Because science is always evolving, articles published in about the last 5 years are preferred, as they’ll have more current information. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Sometimes older articles provide important context, and sometimes an article that is even one year old is already out-of-date. (Think of how quickly information was emerging and changing during the COVID-19 pandemic!)
- Relevance — Is this information relevant to your topic? Or is it a distraction?
- Credibility — Does the information appear to be free of conflict of interest and bias? Does it cite or link to relevant peer-reviewed studies? Does it represent the findings accurately and fairly?
- Expertise — Whose expertise and views are represented? Based on what you learned earlier in this unit, do they have the appropriate expertise to provide accurate information on this topic?
- Purpose — What do you think is the purpose of this article or website? Is it intended to be educational? Is it an opinion piece, meant to convince you of one side or the other of an issue? Is it trying to get you to buy something or donate to a cause, or to attract more clicks? Is the language and layout inflammatory or extreme? Thinking about the author’s purpose in creating the information or website can help you figure out if it is credible and useful to you.
Health and nutrition content in both online and print media often comes in the form of news stories. Publications like to highlight what’s new, and many consider it part of their mission to report information about new scientific studies. Evaluating health and nutrition news gives you a chance to apply what you’ve learned about types of studies and quality study design. Here are some things to look for and keep in mind:
- The news source should be reputable. Larger, national news sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio have dedicated health and science reporters who know how to evaluate studies and will seek out multiple experts to provide additional insights. They also have editors and fact checkers to double check their work.
- The new study should be published in a peer-reviewed journal. As you’ve learned, peer review is a system of checking the quality and interpretation of the research before it’s published. Most studies that are truly newsworthy should have gone through the peer review process before we give them much attention. You’ll sometimes see news stories about studies that have been presented at conferences or published as preprints (released before peer review); these may be interesting, but their conclusions should be viewed with caution.
- The news article should provide context of previous research and comments from outside experts. Remember that one study on its own doesn’t usually tell us much, at least when it comes to making decisions about our own health. A good news article will tell us what was previously known about the topic and how the new study adds to our understanding. It will also include comments from experts who were not involved in the new study and who can discuss its limitations and relevance.
- The study methodology should be sound and provide outcomes that are relevant.
- Consider the type of study and where it sits in the hierarchy of evidence. A study in humans is likely more meaningful than one conducted in cells or in animals; an intervention study is usually more meaningful than an observational study; and systematic reviews and meta-analyses often give you the best synthesis of the science to date.
- Check the details of the study design. How many participants were included? How long did the study last? If it’s an intervention study, check for some of the attributes of high-quality research, such as randomization, placebo control, and blinding.
- Consider the real-world relevance and confounding factors. If an animal study reports that an artificial sweetener causes cancer, check to see how much of the sweetener was tested. If it was an amount 1,000 times normal consumption in humans, that raises questions of relevance. Likewise, if an observational study of blueberries and dementia risk reports that people who ate two servings of blueberries per day had an 8.5% risk of developing dementia compared to a 9% risk in those who didn’t eat blueberries, this is a small difference in risk with questionable real-world relevance and might be explained by confounding factors (e.g., people who eat more blueberries live in neighborhoods with less air pollution, get more exercise, etc).
Following health and science news will make you a more informed consumer and citizen, and it’s great practice applying the tools of information literacy that you’re learning in this course.
Building a Bank of Trustworthy Sources
If you find yourself regularly searching for and evaluating online health and nutrition information, it can be helpful to build a list of go-to sources that you know you can trust. We’ve provided a starter list here, but you can add your own that are relevant to your areas of interest and that you can return to again and again when searching for information or fact-checking claims online.
US Government Websites:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – https://www.cdc.gov
- ChooseMyPlate – https://www.choosemyplate.gov/
- Food and Drug Administration – http://www.fda.gov/
- Foodsafety.gov – https://www.foodsafety.gov/
- Healthy People – https://www.healthypeople.gov/
- MedlinePlus – https://medlineplus.gov/
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – https://nccih.nih.gov/
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute – https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements – https://ods.od.nih.gov/
- Nutrition.gov – https://www.nutrition.gov/
- Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review – https://nesr.usda.gov/
- Office on Women’s Health – https://www.womenshealth.gov/
- Pubmed – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
- Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations – https://www.fao.org/home/en
- World Health Organization – https://www.who.int/
Education and Organization Websites:
- American Cancer Society – https://www.cancer.org/
- American Diabetes Association – http://www.diabetes.org/
- American Heart Association – https://www.heart.org/
- American Society for Nutrition – http://www.nutrition.org/
- Association for Size Diversity and Health – https://asdah.org/
- Center for Science in the Public Interest – https://cspinet.org/
- Eat Right (from the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) – https://www.eatright.org/
- Family Doctor (from the American Academy of Family Physicians) – https://familydoctor.org/
- Food Allergy Research & Education – https://www.foodallergy.org/
- GI Patient Center (from the American Gastroenterological Association) – https://patient.gastro.org/
- Harvard School of Public Health – https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutrition/
- Healthy Children (from the American Academy of Pediatrics) – https://healthychildren.org
- Institute of Medicine: Food and Nutrition – http://nationalacademies.org/hmd/Global/Topics/Food-Nutrition.aspx
- Linus Pauling Institute – http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/
- Mayo Clinic – https://www.mayoclinic.org/
- National Eating Disorder Association – https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
- Sugar Science – http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/
News and Media Websites:
- BBC News Health – https://www.bbc.com/news/health
- CNN Health – https://www.cnn.com/health
- Kaiser Health News – https://kffhealthnews.org/
- Knowable Magazine – https://knowablemagazine.org
- National Public Radio – Shots Health News – https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots
- The New York Times Health and Wellness – https://www.nytimes.com/section/health; https://www.nytimes.com/section/well
- Time Health – https://time.com/section/health/
- The Washington Post – https://www.washingtonpost.com; https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellbeing/
- Scientific American – https://www.scientificamerican.com/
- STAT News – https://www.statnews.com/
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- Group at laptop photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash (license information)
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