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)

Is The New Smart Choices Packaged Food Label Useful?

Uniform Food Label

Uniform Food Label

I first wrote about the Smart Choices labeling program in November 2008, after it was rolled out at the American Dietetic Association Food and Nutrition Conference. In a nutshell, it is the food industry’s stab at taking all the “front of package” labeling from individual companies (smart spot, sensible solutions, etc…) and giving it some uniformity. The new smart choices program has come under hefty criticism from Marion Nestle, who thinks it is more a marketing effort than a nutrition effort.

I hear what she’s saying – do we really need a big effort to help people choose processed foods?  Shouldn’t nutrition experts tell people to limit packaged foods and eat more whole foods?  YOU BET! But, I’m more of a realist than an idealist. When I meet with a client, I can easily tell if they need to cut down the processed/convenience stuff. I can also tell when someone doesn’t want to “give up” their chips, but is willing to cut down on portions or choose the baked version if it is better for them. So I think this labeling system can be useful if you take the right approach. I have some tips to offer that will hopefully help you figure out how you would like to use the label to make decisions. Don’t forget, you are in control. You are smart and can make the right choices for you and your family.

  1. don’t let the label give the product a health halo – processed food is processed food (yes, minimally processed is better). If it needs a label to rate it, you know it’s probably not the healthiest choice. So use it as a way of identifying a better choice among your bags of chips, pretzels, and the other salty convenience foods. You still have to do the work of portion control and making it a “sometimes” food. These aren’t foods you devour in front of the t.v.
  2. don’t let the label make you buy more – just because you see a new product with a label, doesn’t mean you need to add it to your grocery bill. It’s one thing to try something new that replaces another packaged food you used to buy, but be careful that you don’t overdo it on the convenient packaged foods. Cut veggies and hummus is a convenient and healthy choice that can be a great side to lunch sandwiches.
  3. fill your cart with mostly nutrient rich foods – before cruising the packaged foods with the new smart choices label, make sure you give priority to fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits, your favorite lean protein (canned beans, fish, eggs, lowfat dairy), and whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, wheat pasta, tortillas, and other wheat bread products).

Check out the program for yourself here and make your own judgement. Also check out and track some of your favorite foods to eat. Do you go over budget in “discretionary calories“? If so, maybe your eating plan needs a tune up! A dietitian can help you get on track.

Health Misinformation on the Web

Last week I defended my grad school thesis at Johns Hopkins University. My topic was network television news coverage of food and health over 5 years – 2003-2007. There were some interesting outcomes of the study, including that doctors were only used as “experts” in 10% of the broadcasts. Dietitians were even less popular, appearing in 7% of network news stories. Mind you, these were stories about FOOD that had HEALTH in the context of the story. The most popular types of topics were stories about the food industry, food safety, health, and food politics. These are the exact kinds of stories dietitians should be called upon to provide expert comment. Instead, the most popular “experts” were activist/non-profit orgs, the public/consumers, and the food industry.

In my thesis, I cited the American Dietetic Association’s position paper on food and nutrition misinformation in the media and it got me thinking about the prevalence of misinformation on the web — and blogs in particular.

From the position paper:

News reports rarely provide enough context for consumers to interpret or apply the advice given and preliminary findings often attract unmerited and misleading attention. Effective nutrition communication must be consumer-friendly and contain sufficient context to allow consumers to consider the information and determine whether it applies to their unique health and nutritional needs.

Today’s New York Times article in the Health section “You’re Sick. Now What. Knowledge is Power.” asked the question if patients are swimming or drowning in a sea of health information.

From the article:

The rise of the Internet, along with thousands of health-oriented Web sites, medical blogs and even doctor-based television and radio programs, means that today’s patients have more opportunities than ever to take charge of their medical care.

So now I’m inspired to ask people to respond to a few questions.

  1. How prevalent do you think food, nutrition, or health misinformation is out on the web, and blogs in particular.
  2. What do you do to weed out the garbage?
  3. Are you swimming or drowning in all this “knowledge”?

Nutrition advice from non-experts could be “ruff”

I have been waiting for a “National Nutrition Month” blog idea to come to me… and it’s finally here!

To be honest, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by ADA’s theme, “it’s a matter of fact”. When you’re competing with Lost, American Idol, and guitar hero you need to be exciting. Well, no more ho-hum, this media release by ADA is humorous — and true!

Turns out a relative of the ADA President Connie Deikman recently received credentials as a nutritionist — too bad he has four legs and barks. Yep, her best friend and pet is a certified nutritionist. While dogs are wonderful companions, I promise you they are useless nutritionists.

The moral of the story is check your creds. Anyone can benefit from the advice and support of a registered dietitian. With four to six years of academic training and a 9-12 month professional internship experience, the RD creds are tried and true.

Believe me, as an IT geek turned almost-RD, the accreditation agency that doles out those precious letters guards them like a watchdog.  And I don’t think there will be any canines in line anytime soon.

Full press release below.

Would you take food and nutrition advice from someone who eats from a bowl on the kitchen floor and likes to chase squirrels?

Sir Edward of Dundee (a.k.a. Eddie) Diekman of St. Louis, Mo., has two main “qualifications” for dishing out nutrition advice:

  1. He is a member in good standing of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, with a certificate to prove it.
  2. His owner is a registered dietitian.

Eight-year-old Eddie is an English cocker spaniel belonging to registered dietitian Connie B. Diekman and her husband Leo. Connie is the president of the American Dietetic Association and the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. Eddie obtained membership in the American Association of Nutritional Consultants in January, and he has a certificate to prove it.

“Consumers beware: Not all nutritionists are created the same,” Diekman says. “Eddie is living, barking proof that anyone can become a member of an organization of purported nutrition experts, even if they have no more qualification to give nutrition advice than a dog.

“When you need trusted, accurate, timely and practical nutrition advice, you need to seek the advice of a registered dietitian,” Diekman says.

During National Nutrition Month, the American Dietetic Association urges all consumers to look for the RD credential: “RDs know the science of nutrition,” Diekman says. “Our required degrees in foods, nutrition, dietetics, public health or related fields such as biochemistry, medicine or a nutrition specialty in family and consumer sciences come from well-respected, accredited colleges and universities.”