top of page

8 red flags to spot nutrition nonsense

Updated: May 21


a red megaphone inside a head silhouette


There’s now so much foolishness being talked about nutrition, in social and other media, that my clients have been calling for guidance, asking me what they should and shouldn’t believe. A lot of the messages out there are conflicting. The result is often confusion: What does this mean?  Who should we trust? Is it all nonsense?

 

Uncertainty and debates are inherent in all sciences and even more so in nutrition. However, uncertainty is very different from confusion – as humans, we need to embrace the former; the latter is a nuisance.

 

So, where does this confusion around nutrition messages stem from?

 

One of the challenges we face is that the nutrition world is full of very loud people peddling misleading information. Some are over-confident, zealous wannabe-famous influencers, suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect[1]. Others are cynical opportunists preying on our desire for answers. Meanwhile, true experts tend to be quieter, pondering the evidence and taking time to make sure that what they say is valid and relevant (Brandolini’s law![2]).

 

Worryingly, some of the information out there is harmful. (Many registered nutritionists expressed utter dismay at Eddie Abbew’s recent post[3], in which he told people with Crohn’s disease to stop listening to their doctor and eat a carnivore diet – many genuine experts found this appallingly irresponsible).

 


Illustration of Brandolini's Law by Sketchplanations
image: Sketchplanations (Creative Commons)

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” George Bernard Shaw.

 

But how can we cut through the noise of nutrition nonsense? The answer is: it’s rather hard, and it’s getting harder! Like online scammers, self-declared nutritionists are using more and more elaborate techniques to disguise their discourse as a compelling message with a shining veneer of respectability.

 

We don’t all have time to fact-check every claims, but I will encourage everyone to approach any nutrition message from a place of scepticism, questioning what you read or hear, and to be curious. And, to help you turn on your nutrition nonsense detector (aka BS sensor), here are my top 8 red flags to look out for when someone talks about nutrition.

 


tiles of letters changing from FACT to FAKE

8 red flags for nutrition nonsense

 

1. They talk in absolutes

As mentioned earlier, life sciences, and nutrition science in particular, are by nature constantly evolving and uncertain: we talk about evidence rather than proof, expressing levels of confidence rather than proclaiming definite answers. So, if the message holds no nuance or context - “Ultra-processed foods are killing us”, “Coffee is the worst”, “Coffee is the best”- then it is likely to be just noise.

 


2. They demonise one specific food

Whether it’s gluten, dairy, nightshades, or meat - they label some specific foods as ‘bad’ and will suggest that everyone stops consuming that food (or food group), with no consideration of the overall diet, and no nuance based on the specific needs of an individual.



Skull and cross bones made out of sugar expressing fear of refined sugar

 

3. They are a one-trick pony

They promote one single approach as THE solution to all problems. The issue may be fatigue or libido, performance or weight management, ageing or cognition… search no further, the solution is simple: you just need to [insert: be on a low-carb diet, do intermittent fasting, control your blood glucose levels, do keto]. There are certainly people who will benefit from such approaches at times in their life, but this should be tailored to the individual by a healthcare professional who will take into account the possible risks associated with these diets.

 

4. They position themselves against the general consensus

This is when people make claims such as “they don’t want you to know this…”, a form of conspiracy theory. Classic examples are the narrative around seed oils, or about lectins in legumes, claiming that these foods are dangerous for our health, despite their consumption being encouraged in public health eating guidelines. These people will often backup their claims by referring to existing studies, making them sound valid.  But they do what we call ‘cherry-picking’: they focus only on a few studies that align with their belief, no matter how flawed or limited these studies may be, while ignoring the wider body of evidence that contradicts their position.

 


A illustration of the cherry picking fallacy: a man in a white coating stating "all cherries come on pairs" by only focusing on sample of a cherry try

5. They rely too heavily on their own experience

They constantly mention their own health journey and life experience to inform their advice (“I cured my illness when I started to”) with little reference to the wider body of existing research. Anecdotal evidence is the weakest kind of evidence! It certainly doesn’t mean that it will work similarly for others, or that it is even safe. Anecdotal evidence is nothing more than a hunch that they couldn’t be bothered to research properly.

 

In research, nothing is done by just one person. Someone notices something and turns it into a hypothesis that needs to be further tested, which gets done by multiple teams in the broader research community. Progress in science is a collective work!

 

6. They use catchphrases and pseudoscience

‘Hormonal imbalance’, ‘detoxification’, ‘inflammatory’, ‘glucose spike’, ‘adrenal fatigue’, ‘leaky gut’- these terms may sound legitimate but they have little scientific meaning.

Even more insidious is the use of expressions such as ‘research shows…’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘backed up by science’ - these are often empty promises with no mention of the implied studies. They are just turns of phrase to give a veneer of seriousness and respectability. It can go as far as including long reference lists. (warning: ChatGPT is brilliant at generating a random reference list!)

Debunking pseudoscience is truly an art! Research says that the expression ‘research says’ is not a guarantee of reliability anymore 😉.

 

7. They plug commercial products

This one is difficult because we are all ‘trading’ something - whether it is selling a service, a product or even establishing our credibility. We all need to make a living, and not all sellers are dealing in snake oil.

But it is worth being wary if somebody is pushing proprietary supplements, expensive intolerance or hormonal tests (e.g., Dutch test, York test), their very own one-size-fit-all wellness protocol, their revolutionary book, or expensive health and beauty products from partners, with no clear warning or disclosure.

 


an blue liquid tagged as a magic potion at a high price

8. Irrelevant credentials

MD, Doctor, PhD, professor, thousands (sometimes millions) of followers… all these titles and amazing achievements are very commendable, but they do not make you an expert in nutrition. Turns out, there is more to nutrition than just being able to make yourself breakfast despite what Instagram would like you to think.

Nutrition is a tough science to research, study, and interpret [4],[5]. Even the most competent medical doctor would need to do extra training to become a confident nutritionist (and many do!).

So, check the credentials of the expert. You want to make sure they have at least an undergrad or postgrad in nutrition science or dietetics. Registered Dietitians and Registered Nutritionists - with the letters RNutr, ANutr or SENr - are a guarantee that they have a decent training. But even with them, the previous red flags apply. Remember to be curious, and don’t hesitate to ask questions and ask for evidence. A good nutrition expert should be comfortable with that, even if they aren’t too sure or have made a mistake. As I mentioned earlier, we are comfortable with uncertainty!

 

 


An image with text and a dialog to illustrate how some people think they are able to speak about nutrition despite the lack of qualifications in the field


It might also be useful to look from the opposite angle, by looking at the characteristics of good nutrition message:

  • Nuance – Rather than talking in black and white, the expert will put the information into context and will be open about the potential limitations of the evidence.

  • Empowerment – the message will have the objective of helping you make your own decision based on your needs and preference.

  • Openness – the expert will happily share their references, acknowledge their own bias (we all have them), and be open to discussion.

 

 

Nutrition is such a powerful way to look after our health and wellbeing, we shouldn’t be overwhelmed or confused by what to believe and trust. Nor should we be misguided by potential harmful advice!

 

Hopefully you are now feeling a bit more equipped to detect nutrition nonsense or pseudoscience. There are many fabulous nutrition communicators out there with wonderful content, and it would be a shame to let their useful messages disappear into the brouhaha of misinformation.

 

Remember, for credible advice, look for nuance, empowerment, and openness!

 


 

Hello, my name is Clem.
I’m an evidence-based, award-winning nutritionist (MSc, RNutr) and workplace wellbeing specialist.

I help organisations and individuals make sense of nutrition to nurture their health and wellbeing.
If you want to know more about nutrition and health, subscribe to my newsletter or get in touch with me 


 

A recommendation, when looking for valid nutrition info, to look for nuance, empowerment and openness



[1] Kruger J, Dunning D. Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999;77(6):1121-1134. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121

[4] Vitolins MZ, Case TL. What Makes Nutrition Research So Difficult to Conduct and Interpret?. Diabetes Spectr. 2020;33(2):113-117. doi:10.2337/ds19-0077

 

[5] Hickson M, Papoutsakis C, Madden AM, Smith MA, Whelan K. Nature of the evidence base and approaches to guide nutrition interventions for individuals: a position paper from the Academy of Nutrition Sciences. British Journal of Nutrition. 2024;131(10):1754-1773. doi:10.1017/S0007114524000291

160 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 comentário


Convidado:
6 days ago

Very intereting, in the nutrition/wellbeing field and beyond!

Curtir
bottom of page