Catchy headlines are designed to grab our attention and keep us engaged, but how do the headlines about diet and health stack up? Hilary Du Cane explains how to dig deeper and probe them in more detail
The appetite for published information about diet and health is insatiable and most newspapers, TV channels, magazines and websites carry stories about it every day.
They usually imply that you should make some change to your life to improve your health. Should you take this advice and act on it without question? Certainly not! Read on to see how to weigh things up, probe the topic in more depth and decide whether to take their advice or not.
Where do these stories start?
Media stories often originate in a press release from ‘someone’ with a vested interest in publicising the content. That ‘someone’ might be a research scientist, a medical professional, a public health body, the government, a health-related charity, a food producer, publisher or author, or someone offering health advice such as a personal trainer. Alternatively, a story might originate in a trending consumer blog.
The journalist selects a newsworthy topic suitable for their publication, combines input from various sources and writes an article that appeals to their specific readers.
Stories about how a balanced diet contributes to good health are not very newsworthy – after all, who takes any notice of the reality that healthy eating is all about balance, moderation and variety?
What’s the point?
The idea is to get your attention with a catchy headline and keep you engaged. Writers do this by various methods such as:
• Seizing on new research findings or statistics likely to be popular with readers, for example, ‘Boozing three to four times a week HALVES your risk of developing diabetes, but what tipple is best?’ (from The Sun).
• Entertaining you with one person’s experience, for example, ‘Size 22 mother sheds EIGHT stone – and says it’s all down to drinking gallons of green tea’ (from The Daily Mail).
• Examining current trends in eating, such as the BBC’s ‘10 food trends for 2017’.
• Supporting a charity such as ‘Do five coffees a day keep the doctor away?’ (from the British Heart Foundation).
• Pushing a celebrity’s book such as Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet.
• Exploring a controversy, for example, ‘Coco-nuts? The rise and fall of a superfood’ (from Reading University).
• Contradicting a common belief, for example, ‘Yes, you can be ‘fat but fit’’ (from The Independent).
• Being trendy such as ‘I went vegan for 60 days and it changed my life’ (from The Telegraph).
“Check out the credentials of authors and quoted experts online„
How to dig deeper
Here’s how to dig deeper and decide if the information in an article is trustworthy and relevant to you.
Who is the author?
There will often be a short biography of the author and his or her credentials in relation to the topic. You can verify these with a little research online.
Is it neutral?
Is the medium itself neutral about the subject, or does it have a commercial bias? For example, a manufacturer’s website or house magazine might well provide useful facts and figures about products and their health benefits, but it won’t highlight any negatives, or suggest other ways of achieving the same benefit. The same goes for communications from trade associations and special interest groups.
“Read the articles in full – not just the headlines and opening paragraphs„
Is it an advert?
Is the article editorial or paid-for advertising? It’s easy to spot advertisements, but not always advertorials or promotional features. These are paid-for marketing communications dressed up as editorial, using the same look as the publication. Advertorials must be headed to make this clear such as ‘Advertisement Feature’, or online, ‘#ad’.
Is it commercial?
By law, claims about the nutrient content and health benefits of a food can only be made if authorised, but that only applies in what are known as ‘commercial communications’, which means food labels, advertisements and advertorials. All other media, such as blogs and newspapers, are not ‘commercial’ in this context, so can include anything the writer wants to say, even if it’s unscientific or one-sided.
An example is coconut oil, which for years was promoted as beneficial to health, supposedly lowering cholesterol, keeping weight off and improving the functions of the brain and immune system. There’s no scientific evidence that any of that is true and no authorised claims for the oil, or any of its components. That’s why you won’t see claims about nutrition and health on the labels.
Is it a personal account?
The article mentioned earlier about going vegan is the writer’s personal account. She doesn’t pretend to be an expert and she does include the pros and cons, but the implied recommendation to go vegan is not based on scientific evidence.
Similarly, the headline about green tea suggests that’s all there is to losing weight. Yet the article points out that the woman also gave up snacking and junk food and started exercising regularly. Like the vegan article, this is one person’s experience, not evidence.
Has the background research been published in a reliable journal?
You can easily check the original source of the featured finding, which will be given in the story. If the research has been published in a peer-reviewed, authoritative journal, you know that its editors have approved it for publication. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a watertight finding. Most scientific papers conclude with the statement that more work needs to be done before the finding is proven. If the finding has only been presented at a conference, or written up on the research establishment’s website, it has not been critically reviewed.
If the topic has been systematically reviewed by an independent body such as Cochrane, you’re in luck. The task of sifting through all the published evidence from controlled trials, dismissing those that were not well-conducted and boiling the rest down to the essence has been done for you. However, that is not health advice and it may not be relevant to you.
Any experts quoted?
Experts are often quoted in stories about diet and health. These may be individuals speaking on their own behalf or spokespeople of respected health bodies. Although this lends credibility, especially if there are several experts quoted, their words will have been edited to suit the thrust of the story. You can check out their credentials online and see whether they have associations that might bias their contribution. You can check whether they are a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist. Both are trained professionals.
The story will be more reliable if it includes well-founded advice such as the overriding benefits of a balanced diet and active lifestyle.
Check it out with a trustworthy resource
If a story grabs your interest and you’re thinking of making a change to your diet as a result, read around the subject first and check it out with a reliable resource. You’ll usually find that many publications are covering it. It helps to read what several journalists have made of it. Read the articles in full rather than relying on the headlines and opening paragraphs. Look for a review of the topic from an independent, knowledgeable source such as a health charity, NHS Choices, the British Dietetic Association or other professional institution.
Finally, ask a dietitian. We’re the only qualified nutrition professionals who are regulated by law to interpret nutrition science into practical advice about your diet.
References available upon request.
Hilary Du Cane is a dietitian and marketer, with many years’ experience in the food industry. She works freelance helping food companies and individuals with nutrition. This includes staying up to speed with nutrition science and how it’s presented, often wrongly, in popular media.