How To Navigate Health Misinformation And Spot Red Flags

If you have a smartphone, it is impossible to not be a target of health misinformation. Some social media accounts are churning out videos and content every single day, to increase their chances of pleasing the algorithm gods and widening their net. When it comes to health information, putting out poorly researched content designed to scare you or grab your attention, makes it increasingly challenging to discern fact from fiction. 

While videos like how a pet cat can make you luckier or how adding a pinch of chilli powder to your chapati atta can make you more prosperous are relatively harmless, these prey on the trust of the audience. When these videos move into the realm of health and wellness, it can lead to serious consequences for our health decisions.

A few questions you must ask before you believe the next clickbait WhatsApp forward or the Instagram reel on your feed to stop the flow of health misinformation

Source Of Information

Is it credible and unbiased? Is it from a qualified professional, a not-for-profit organisation, or a university? There are thousands of self-proclaimed experts in the field of healthcare these days, most of whom haven’t even studied the sciences after high school. Be wary of people who have given themselves the title of ‘Dr’ or have built their brand as a health expert by merely talking at forums and podcasts.

This is not to say that qualified professionals do not make mistakes or do not spread misinformation, but they have more to lose by doing so than the average person without a medical degree. 

Does The Claim Veer Towards Extremes?

Often, there are articles on the internet saying that “this herbal tea will prevent cancer,” or “drinking from a plastic cup will cause cancer”. These, along with words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ are classic clickbait examples of relying on extremes to catch the readers’ attention. Health outcomes are often the result of multiple factors, and there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Dig For Details

A lot of health content creators declare that a particular vegetable or ingredient has toxins, without disclosing what the said toxin is and what is the toxic effect it has on the body. General statements like ‘heating honey causes cancer’ without mentioning the temperature to which it is heated, what is the quantity of the heated honey consumed, what cancer it causes, and what is the reason behind this causation, are all too common. Ask these questions from these content creators whose favourite topic is ‘x’ causes cancer. You will most likely get blocked for questioning them

Evidence For Claim and How Strong Is It?

You can start with any viewpoint and you’ll find a study that supports it. The recent incident of researchers presenting a poster on how time-restricted eating was linked to a 91% increase in the risk of cardiovascular death is a clear example of this. This was from a poster presented at a conference and not from a peer-reviewed journal, which is considered high-quality evidence.

Some content creators cherry-pick lines from the title of the published study without even reading what is inside or getting into the details that provide context. A famous health influencer recently claimed that wearing polyester clothes in the gym rendered women infertile based on a study done on 8 female dogs. 

Look for high-quality, peer-reviewed research and consider the consensus within the scientific community.

Is The Claim Anecdotal?

Content creators often extrapolate their own experiences into grand theories, generalising it for the masses as a universal truth. You should be strongly sceptical of this kind of content where people say they cured their cancer by drinking a juice and declare it as the newest cure for cancer. Anecdotal evidence can be compelling but there are no scientific studies or medical evidence to support them. 

Demand scientific evidence and critical analysis before accepting health claims at face value.

Correlation And Causation

Both these terms explain the relationship between two variables. Correlation is when two variables or events seem to be related to each other. Causation refers to a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables. The cause must precede the effect, and changes in the cause must result in changes in the effect. 

Observational studies cannot prove causation, which is why the poster presented that time-restricted eating caused a whopping increase in cardiovascular deaths raises so many questions about its veracity. The most popular nutrition myths that mistake correlation for causation are – eating after sunset causes weight gain or eating rice causes weight gain. Misunderstanding correlation as causation can lead to wrong conclusions about health behaviours and outcomes.

In Conclusion

The number of non-experts giving health advice far outweighs the actual experts creating content with verified information on social media. This trend is slowly changing, and more doctors are turning to content creation. Mainstream media also has a role to play in not disseminating a piece of health advice just because it went viral on social media, without fact-checking or verifying these claims. We can also stop the flow of misinformation by not sharing before verifying the accuracy and trustworthiness of the content received, in short, don’t do a ‘forwarded as received’. 

The digital landscape is plagued by health misinformation, but with critical thinking and a healthy dose of scepticism, we can navigate these murky waters. Question the source, scrutinise the evidence, and seek out reliable information from trusted sources. By arming ourselves with knowledge and discernment, we can protect ourselves from falling victim to misleading health claims, avoid living in fear, and make informed decisions about our wellness and nutrition. 


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