Fake Health News Is Everywhere…
As a health psychologist, I absorb information about health like a massive sponge. I live to watch documentaries and read articles about innovations in healthcare and treatment. It can be hard to know where to turn with health information, yet it is possible to tease information apart.
In a recent study, it was demonstrated that school children in Uganda could be educated about how to interpret health claims in media (Nsangi et al, 2017), but the US seems to need some support in the area, particularly in the realm of social media.
Yesterday, I saw a story from a news station (WZZM) that had the title, “These 5 Habits that are Worse for You Than Smoking.” The habits, if you were wondering, were: sitting too long, eating too much meat and cheese, cooking with natural gas, cooking with vegetable oil, and not getting enough sleep. This “article” seems like the best possible subject for a fake health news dissection. If you want to be a smart consumer of health-related media, here are a few important tips:
1. Never Trust the Headline
This story was a summary of a story that was published in GQ, which had the title, “5 Daily Habits as Bad for You as Smoking.” Notice the change here? By intensifying the claim, your emotional reaction is stronger, but you are leading off with misinformation.
2. Analyze the Claims
Let’s go with the simple “smell test” here- does the claim seem like it is pretty exaggerated? If so, time to look further into it. First of all, let’s come up with a good expectation of how bad smoking is for you. According to the CDC, cigarette smoking causes 480,000 deaths per year and is related to cancer in multiple organs, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease. Their first bad habit, sitting all day, causes as much as 2/3 the cancer cases as smoking, according to the GQ article- the original story had a simple sentence. I don’t think this one requires much further detection, in that we all know that 2/3 is not more than 1, right?
3. Watch for Sources
The WZZM story had GQ as its source. Sorry, but GQ is not a very highly valued source of health literature. The second claim, about natural gas being worse for you, was sourced in GQ to a 2013 article in Environmental Health Perspectives. Not having the author makes it harder to track down, but I believe they were actually citing this 2014 study.
Important issues to note- the study was limited to Southern California and only with homes that don’t use ventilation. Having just been through a huge remodel, I can tell you that construction code often requires ventilation for cooktops for this very reason. The health risk also was not quantified, which makes this claim really not hold up.
4. Food Health Claims Should Always Be Taken with a Grain of Salt
Research on the health effects of food choices is very hard to perform with any accuracy. Most of these studies are from population studies over time and do not do a great job adapting the claim as food changes. Also, many studies use a 24-hour food diary to make claims about long-term effects of dietary choices. The challenge with this method is that eating habits do change over time. Quite simply, if the people who ate a high protein diet were on a diet that prescribed high protein, the dieting behavior can be reflective of a greater problem with weight or health.
The citation in both stories was pretty vague for this one, but I believe they were using this article. They utilized 24-hr diary recall and then looked at 18 years beyond that diary for effects on health. They also found, which only the GQ story noted, that the effect of protein consumption flipped after age 65- higher protein was more protective. What this means to me is that they actual pathway is not completely understood.
5. Lack of Citation
The WZZM story felt that citing the GQ article was adequate, which actually was probably true since it was a shortened version of their work. However, the cooking oil claim in the GQ article had no sources, which makes it very suspect. We can skip sources when we have stated a global fact or may be an expert in the area, but GQ is neither.
6. Look for Bias in the Experts
One of the biggest criticisms of the “What the Health?” documentary is the fact that all of their sources are people who are active in the vegan movement and may have some additional incentives to present a slant toward a vegan lifestyle. This goes back to the concept that studying effects of eating patterns on a population can create a lot of data that is open to interpretation.
So, what has been the most extreme health claim you have seen? How have you been able to evaluate it further? Leave your comments below!