Katie Ferraro, MPH, RD, CDE
How do you get students to stop believing “stuff” they read on the internet? Before taking a nutrition science class, most students’ exposure to nutrition information has been incorrect, misleading, or false material gleaned from questionable online sources, personal trainers or celebrities. Since it doesn’t make sense to ban the internet as a source of nutrition information, my motto remains, “If you can’t beat ‘em….join ‘em.” I make it a point to incorporate a “determining reliable nutrition information” module in to the earlier parts of any nutrition science course I teach. Often, we start out by watching a quick clip from an old Arthur cartoon that goes like this:
Buster, “What do you mean?”
Arthur, “How do you know someone didn’t just make it up?”
Buster, “You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?!”
After a brief discussion about “who writes the internet”, we jump into examples of reputable vs. untrustworthy nutrition sources (and of course the requisite, “Wikipedia is not a reliable reference for a college-level course”). The following tips are a list of best practices that colleagues and myself have compiled to help students determine what is and what is not a reliable or credible source when discerning nutrition information.
Ask the Hard Questions
As with most things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Teaching students to go with their gut and question whether information even makes sense is a good jumping off point. Can you really lose 15 pounds of fat in one week? Is it likely that a remotely-located, difficult-to-pronounce ingredient will actually cure cancer? If it sounds too good to be true, it is. End of story. Planning a healthy diet requires time, knowledge and discipline. It’s not impossible, but the point of taking an introduction level nutrition course is to gather the skill set needed to see past the quick-fix, pill-popping approaches that society espouses for attaining optimal nutrition status.
Do Domain-Directed Searches
It never ceases to amaze me that the students who seem to be the most prolific internet users are often the ones least likely to critically analyze the source of their information.
Teaching students the very basics of generic top-level internet domain suffixes and the difference between a .gov, .com, .edu or .org site can be a very important lesson for them. To introduce the concept of domain-directed searches I have students conduct four different searches on the popular topic of gluten free diets:
- First they search “gluten free diet” in a web-browser, bringing up the predictable list of gluten free junk foods available for sale on .com (commercial) websites; we talk about commercial interests having a product to sell or an ax to grind and how that shapes the information on those sites.
- Next, we search “gluten free diet site:.gov”, yielding only government websites containing peer-reviewed, generally-reliable scientific information about celiac disease and the gluten free diet.
- Following that we look at results for “gluten free diet site:.edu”, bringing up results from venerable education institutions about gluten free topics. We discuss how Harvard and Tufts and the University of California, Berkeley might convey these topics in a different light than the government or commercial interests.
- Lastly, we search “gluten free diet site:.org” and discuss how historically a .org website indicated a non-profit organization, but that this designation no longer holds true and that .org websites may or may not contain reliable information about nutrition and other topics.
Think Like a Con Artist
To identify scammers, it helps to think like a scammer. When broaching the topic of reliable nutrition information, I love exploring examples of egregious fad diets and supplement claims with students. We analyze the most tried and true approaches to selling bunk nutrition information: the inadequacies of celebrity testimonials, highlighting of fake credentials, delving into persecution claims and unpublished studies, and exploring personal gain and financial motivation. There is no shortage of bad examples to get the conversation going. All students have seen a celebrity diet on the cover of a magazine, or been sold on a shady supplement by their bodybuilding buddy.
I personally love the intro nutrition textbook in my field with the heading, “Would you take nutrition information from someone who eats dog food?” The author went online and obtained a “nutritionist” credential for her dog from a diploma mill, snapped a picture of the dog with the “degree” and included it in the text under the topic of unreliable nutrition credentials. Students love it and it’s a great way to drive home the topic that in our field, the word “nutritionist” essentially means “nothing”.
We can segue these humorous introductions into thoughtful discussions about how to evaluate health information on the internet. One of my favorite sites to explore with students is the National Institutes of Health’s “How to Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers” available at. Available here.
A Picture Paints a Thousand Words
You can talk until you’re blue in the face about bogus info on the internet. Or you can let a video do it for you. My nutrition classes all have a food-first approach, meaning we learn about how in almost every situation, foods are sufficient and supplements are unnecessary. We do explore situations in which supplements are beneficial and for what populations this might hold true, but only after students have a thorough understanding of how unregulated the supplement industry in the United States is. One of the best tools I have found for driving this concept home is a clip from the movie “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”. Although the documentary is mostly about the dangers of steroid use, there’s a great five-minute scene where the filmmakers make up a scam supplement company in one day.
View and share the video with this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vxrTMYXpZo. It really resonates with students about how easily they can be “sold” something under the pretenses of science.
Turn a Negative into a Profession
Rather than dwelling endlessly on the negative side of unreliable online information, it helps to point students in a positive life direction. Many students are in your class because they are looking for career options or exploring paths of study. If this is the case, turn those students towards reputable credentials and explain the education path required to get there. I am a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Diabetes Educator. I explain to students how I obtained these credentials, why they are respected in the medical and healthcare communities, and what steps to take if they too are interested in working towards a nationally recognized credential. We talk about professional associations, the benefits of mentor-ship and networking, and the importance of continuing education. The overarching goal is to inspire students to take the steps needed to become a legitimate authority in their area of interest…with a secondary call to action for them to possibly become a warrior in the battle against misleading online information!