The Price of Misinformation in the Media

Misinformation in the media can be dangerous. It breeds confusion, frustration, and even fear.

Just last week I posted some tips for spotting nutrition misinformation on the internet.  Little did I know there would be two national media outlets in print and television (Time and Good Morning America) that would produce misleading stories in nutrition and exercise with potentially damaging effects.

It’s one thing when people hear new information and share it with others (there’s a reason they call it a “rumormill” and “myths”), but when the media are behind the misinformation it helps no one. People trust the media and they assume that the stories are well-researched. But that’s not always the case in this day and age of a small news hole and the fierce competition to stand out with breaking news. The pressure for ratings is higher than ever and staying relevant in the land of Twitter and the Blogosphere is a challenge for mainstream media. But when it comes to nutrition and exercise misinformation, consumers pay the price.

I’m going to point out these two examples of misinformation and give you some resources that will help you see the media through a different lens. The bottom line is this: Don’t believe everything you read and see. If something looks interesting, do your homework. You may not be getting the whole picture or you may have been an accidental victim of the “time crunch” in news.

ACSM vs Time Magazine

time-magazine-august-17Time published a cover story that claimed “The Myth of Exercise: Fueling hunger, not weight loss” and the blogosphere picked it up. I got a Tweet from USAtoday health that shared the ACSM press release that refuted the claims and even had the expert interviewed in the Time article claiming that they misrepresented his position and ideas. When I saw this I was really shocked that such an absurd claim would be reported in Time magazine so I blogged about it over at Diets in Review.

If you believe the article then, you’d believe: Losing weight matters more than being aerobically fit in preventing heart disease; One can’t lose weight from exercise because exercise makes you hungrier – and willpower can’t conquer the hunger enough to make good food choices; Exercising 60 to 90 minutes most days of the week in order to lose weight (a recommendation from an ACSM Position Stand) is unrealistic; Leisure-time physical activity – just moving around more during the day – is more effective for weight loss than dedicated exercise; Vigorous exercise depletes energy resources so much that it leads to overeating – i.e., weight gain

But the reality is the science tells a totally different story: There is strong evidence from the majority of the scientific literature that physical activity is an important component of an effective weight loss program; Physical activity is one of the most important behavioral factors in weight maintenance and improving long-term weight loss outcomes. In fact, participation in an exercise program has proven to be the very best predictor of maintaining weight that was lost; Effective weight loss and maintenance depend on a simple equation called energy balance: Calories expended through physical activity and normal lifestyle functions must exceed calories consumed; It is a myth that exercise can actually prevent weight loss by leading exercisers to overeat. Research and common sense disprove this notion. Look around the gym or the jogging trail. If this were the case, wouldn’t those who regularly exercise be the fattest?

Jim Whitehead, Executive Vice President of ACSM, offered the following analysis of the issue:

“The cover story of Time addresses critical and at times complex issues about physical activity, diet, and weight. Time brings needed focus to the importance of our behaviors and lifestyles — especially physical activity and diet — not only for weight but also for our overall health. The article would benefit even more from some helpful refinement, in that it includes occasional misunderstandings of the scientific and public health evidence about these matters, and at times draws more on personal experience and viewpoint. Last October, for example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. That historic report powerfully demonstrated that physical activity lowers the risks of early death, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and much more. The bottom line is this: Very few people are able to maintain a healthy weight without regular physical activity and those who do are still at high risk of chronic disease due to being sedentary.

Good Morning America Mislabels Guest as a “Nutritionist”

gma_logo_medWhen a television program doesn’t do background and fact checking for nutrition experts, it hits a little close to home. Especially since there are SO MANY amazing nutrition experts out there! (I give a list at the end of this post). The danger in this is that they give a huge platform (national reach then embed in YouTube so it is global) to someone who may not have any real training in nutrition. Appearing on the show gives a person with no credibility recognition they don’t deserve and can persuade people to make a dangerous health decision.

Here’s a link to the segment. The main things I’d challenge as a nutrition expert is that 100% fruit snack makes kids “moody”, that peanut butter is “loaded” with sugar (natural pb has none, others have a small amount. hey, I’m a fan of almond butter, but don’t throw pb under the bus!). That diet sodas spike blood sugar (there is no sugar to spike. I’m not saying drink diet soda and I love watermelon, but again don’t mislead people to get your message out.) That fruit at night is discouraged because it “pushes” other food.

I do want to point out this particular “expert guest”, who is actually a model and skincare salesperson, actually spreads misinformation about RDs on her blog. Make sure you look at the links to the RDs below and tell me if they fit this narrow, demeaning, and offensive description:

Trained dietitians primarily focus on meal planning and are hired by hospitals and occasionally other institutions. Nutrition is a “whole body” approach, in which meal planning is only one small part. Nutritionists are trained by individualize and recommend broader and long-term nutritional programs. Individuals preferring progressive help usually seek the advice of nutritionists rather than dietitians.

Bottom line: ANYONE can call themselves a nutritionist. You can. Your grandma can. President Obama can.

When a person calls themselves a nutritionist with no formal or accredited training and spreads misinformation on television, everybody loses. This is not a rare event. In fact, it is so prevalent that Professor Gary  Schwitzer started an initiative to review and rate the accuracy of news stories about health news. is a website dedicated to:
• Improving the accuracy of news stories about medical treatments, tests, products and procedures.
• Helping consumers evaluate the evidence for and against new ideas in health care.

We support and encourage the ABCs of health journalism.
• Accuracy
• Balance
• Completeness

I have to note that since June 2008 (yes a whole year!) GMA segments received mostly 0-2 stars and had only one 3-star rating out of a possible 5 stars!

Gary  Schwitzer isn’t the only one working to combat health misinformation in the media. Ben Goldcare, MD and writer for The Guardian is an award-winning medical journalist has a book and blog called “Bad Science”, in which he exposes shabby health “news”. Check out his posts on uncredentialed nutritionists and Gillian McKeith in particular.

If you want a quick belly laugh at the parody of “lifestyle nutritionists” then be sure to visit the Science Based Medicine blog. But then after your laugh, think seriously about the potential damage the media can do when they recognize non-experts as experts. There’s just no excuse for it. No matter the time crunch. Do your homework, check your expert. Consumers deserve it.

Nutrition Experts to Watch

This list is by no means comprehensive, please feel free to share your own favorite nutrition expert. But I had to at least highlight some of the amazing work nutrition experts are doing — and all but one on my list is a registered dietitian.

Ellie Krieger, James Beard Award winner for Foods You Crave, Food Network chef “Healthy Appetite”

Cheryl Forberg, James Beard Award winning author, Biggest Loser dietitian

Mitzi Dulan, Pro Athlete / Team Sports Dietitian, Co-Author of the new book All-Pro diet with Tony Gonzalez.

Kate Gaegan, America’s Green Nutritionist, Author of Go Green and Get Lean great review here by another stellar dietitian Janet Helm at Nutrition Unplugged.

Dave Grotto, Author 101 Foods that Can Save Your Life

Nutrition Twins Tammy and Lyssie on ABC health

Dana Angelo White with Healthy Eats blog (Food Network) on ABC news

Marion Nestle, PhD. Professor and Author of Food Politics, What to Eat, Safe Food If food policy is your thing, she’s your expert.


I guess I’ll close with an invitation for dialogue… what stood out to you most about this post, about the issue, do you have ideas for solutions? Did I miss something? I look forward to the conversation.

In health,

Rebecca (a proud RD, ACSM health fitness specialist — certified and credentialed nutrition and exercise expert)

27 thoughts on “The Price of Misinformation in the Media

  1. Thank you, Rebecca, for this post – it so clearly outlines the problem we have here – the media has a tough job, for sure, but it is selling false information in these cases and someone needs to blow the whistle.

  2. Great job, Rebecca. It’s so important for us RDs to always use the science when making recommendations BUT media–especially television–is mainly about entertainment. Whe preparing for tv segments or writing articles etc, we can do our homework, and even true experts such as ourselves can make mistakes in how we relay information since the science of nutrition and fitness is always evolving and not black and white the way the media often likes to portray it. BUT it is our job to do the best we can with the information we have, and sometimes–actually many times–tell viewers, readers, and the public at large that while there are facts about nutrition, exercise, diet etc, we can do our best to translate the facts and emerging science into practical, real-world solutions BUT that our recommendations are not one size fits all and won’t apply to everyone.

    We can arm consumers with solid information and expertise, but just as you’ve done in your blog post here, we are better off empowering consumers to read between the lines and get the facts before they make any changes in their food and lifestyle behaviors….and of course we can always recommend that people go see an RD to help them do just that safely and sensibly.🙂
    Elisa Zied

    • Elisa –

      You have so many good points and as a regular nutrition experts in national television and print publications I know you speak from experience.

      I think that mistakes are bound to happen. How many people say “oh, this is the point I wanted to get across”.

      I think nutrition is SO FUN and there are ways to portray the fun in the facts and the reality in the “new evidence”.

      I think the successful expert guest will put the piece into perspective to appeal to a broad audience, even if the segment is “entertainment”. People are learning from it so it is “EDU-tainment”.

  3. Thank you for taking these media outlets to task. I work with clients in the gym everyday and it is exactly this kind of misinformation that leads confusion.

    It’s hard enough for many people to establish a fitness training program and find to the time complete it without this garbage.

    Jason Chiero, CPT

    If it would help anyone they can get free videos with “true” information at my blog site:

    • Margie – who knows… I remember when I thought butter on a burn was smart. DOH!

      I love nutrition because it really comes down to taking care of yourself and nourishing yourself.

      I think it is so powerful to explore all the benefits of food – health, emotions, relationships.

      Sometimes, however, I get frustrated by the stuff people pay attention to… “how much sugar is in a carrot”?

      We need a “don’t sweat the small stuff” for nutrition.

      I just saw another claim that eating less meat is better for the environment than a hybrid car. So could that be something that is worth thinking about as opposed to the sugar content of vegetables?

    • Danielle –

      So true… I guess it is the training in “sciences” with chemistry and nutrition degrees that I learned to always be a good skeptic (not cynic), but a healthy dose of skepticism.

      My main call to the media is to ask them to do more gut-checking in their reporting. Do the expert claims sound “too goo to be true” and ask for evidence! Can they cite a study? Do they represent a major body like ADA or ACSM? Not required, of course, but at least screen for “quackery”.

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  5. Thoughtful and informative. Thanks for taking the time to present a response especially for the Time Mag article. That article has been the talk of my gym all week long.

    • Really? I hope you can set it straight… keep working out people🙂 I mean, who can honestly say the only benefit of exercise they feel is weight reduction? I sleep better, work better, feel happier… It is a natural “drug”.

  6. Fact checking rules. I stand by that. Great piece, Rebecca.

    Where my brain always goes for these types of discussions around exercise is the emphasis on exercise for weight loss, but the benefits of exercising are far more than being thin. I’m working on this for my next blog entry.

    Jill Jayne, MS, RD
    The Rockstar Nutritionist

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  8. It’s not just “nutritionists” who can spread this disinformation…it is exercise gurus, chiropractors, nurses…but who has a public forum like FB or Twitter or TV….but doesn’t have the science or education to support their assertions – yet people listen. It’s that old adage…” A little learning is a dangerous thing…..” Alexander Pope

    • Leah –

      I can honestly tell you that when I was credentialed as a trainer (many moons ago) that I truly wanted to do right by my clients, but I knew so little about nutrition. I wish they would have had the ACSM/ADA “Crossing the Line” piece to help me as a trainer know my scope of work. While I think there are reputable, credentialed nutrition experts who aren’t necessarily RDs, they are few and far between and their expertise usually goes to the PhD level.

      What I worry most about non-experts is their motive. If it is honestly to help people then they will go through the process of becoming credentialed and seek additional education in holistic health. Mark Rifkin, RD of Preventative Nutrition Services comes to mind:

      I have ED clients who have “horror stories” of being placed on a supplement regimen that cost $$$ and did not help and they believe fueled their ED because it allowed them to eliminate foods. Scary.

  9. Great blog. I will share this with my dietetics students when we do the lecture on dietitians in the media.

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