• The Coeliac Nutritionist

Nutrition Information: How to Tell Fact from Fiction

In the age of this 24/7 digital society, it can be difficult to figure out if the Nutrition advice or information you are reading is true and credible.

The lovely and talented Dr Andrea McGrattan has written a guest article for The Coeliac Nutritionist NI on advice around credible nutrition information.

About the author:

Andrea is a HCPC registered dietitian and lecturer in human nutrition and dietetics at Newcastle University, UK. She has completed a PhD in public health nutrition at Queen’s University, Belfast with a wealth of experience in designing, implementing and evaluating dietary intervention studies among people at risk of poor health. Within that, she is experienced in developing evidence-based nutritional resources and providing dietary education for patients and public involved in research.

Here is what Andrea has to say:

As consumers, we are subjected to vast amounts of information about diet and nutrition, particularly online via social media. It is important to be able to disentangle the type of information that is credible and whether you can trust it. There is a lot of nutrition information that is not factual, and some of it can even be dangerous. This blog is intended to give you some advice on how to avoid misinformation.

Misleading nutrition information is not only found online; it can be on our television screens, in our supermarkets and on food packaging labels. Thankfully, organisations like the Department for Health (UK), dietetic and nutrition regulatory bodies are working hard to try and minimise the risk of exposing the public to this type of misinformation. For example, in 2020 the British Dietetic Association launched a campaign against the promotion of misleading nutrition services and products online working in collaboration with the Advertising Standards Authority. However, the reality of the situation is that misleading nutrition information does exist. So, how can consumers spot it?

The source

Always look at the source of the information. Many people claim to be experts in nutrition yet have very limited knowledge and have unreliable qualifications.

Registered Dietitians are the only qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat dietary and nutritional problems at an individual and wider public health level. Dietitians are the only nutrition professionals to be regulated by law. In other words, in the UK a person can only practice as a dietitian if they are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. You can check if a dietitian is registered via the HCPC website.

Nutritionists are qualified to provide information about food, nutrition and healthy eating and they can work in a variety of settings from the food industry, research to public health. The term nutritionist is not protected by law; anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, however only registrants with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists (UKVRN) can call themselves a Registered Nutritionist (aNutr/RNutr). There are many nutrition qualifications out there. Courses that have applied and met strict standards of professional education in nutrition are accredited by the Association for Nutrition (AfN) and graduates from these courses have direct entry onto the voluntary register.

Bottom line – check for qualifications and signs of the individual(s) being registered with a professional body. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and check! Registered dietitians and nutritionists will be happy to share this kind of information with you.

Type of information

It is important to think about the type of information and how to determine if it is credible.

  • Internet: Websites should be from credible web addresses ending in .edu (an educational institution), .gov (government agency), or .org (non-profit). Any web pages that end in .com (commercial) or .net (networks) should be reviewed with caution. In saying that, some independent / freelance dietitians or registered nutritionists could operate from this type of web page domain. Important to look for a biography and examine those qualifications! The same goes for books, newspapers and magazines – think about the source.

  • Television: Make sure that the findings are well researched and repeatable; one study doesn’t make a finding absolute. Be critical and look for follow up studies.

  • For all media sources: Make sure the information is referenced with cited sources. Seek out multiple perspectives regarding nutrition advice, and ask a nutrition expert about the source of the findings. Ensure that the information is current and informing, not attempting to advertise or sell a product.

Research – be a critical thinker!

Dietitians and registered nutritionists base their dietary advice on sound evidence which is guided by a critical review of relevant research. But how can a consumer understand if a research study is reliable? It is important to think critically when it comes to research. Here are some things to consider:

Where was the research published? Reliable dietary advice will be based on evidence sourced from research studies that are published in credible, peer-reviewed scientific journals. Experts have reviewed these studies to make sure they are of high quality.

How does funding influence research? The source of funding for a research project may influence the reporting of results. The funding source is usually included in the journal article. When reading an article from a funded research project, you must consider whether the funders of this research had anything to gain by the results.

I read a report in a newspaper that linked to a research study – I should trust this report, right? No! The newspaper (or any other media source) have provided their “interpretation” on a particular research study. It is up to you as the reader to look at the original source and think about the research study in question. Reporting in the media may misconstrue findings to generate a public response – not trustworthy!

How to find a registered dietitian or nutritionist?

If you would like more information or to find a registered nutrition professional near you, registered dietitians can be found by contacting your local hospital or GP surgery, by searching for a freelance dietitian on the Freelance Dietitians website, delivered by the British Dietetic Association (BDA) or through the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Search for a registered nutritionist near you on the Association for Nutrition's website.

Many thanks for taking the time to write this Andrea

Thanks for reading,

The Coeliac Nutritionist NI

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