Let the consumer beware

I’m always astonished when smart people share questionable information as if it were factual.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen way too much of this lately through social media. All sorts of advice and dire warnings regularly pop up. I’ve seen everything from recommendations to soak your feet in mouthwash to dangerous myths, like surgery will cause cancer to spread. If people believe these things they might do something silly, like temporarily turning their feet blue in hopes of removing some calluses. That’s not so bad, but when misinformation scares people and leads them to decide not to do something that could save their life, or when they chose to do something harmful because of something they’ve read, that’s downright awful.

What really makes me crazy is all the nutritional, health and fitness misinformation out there. This stuff is floating around all year long, but I see much more of it at the beginning of each year, when people typically vow to eat better and exercise more. In fact, according to USA.gov, some of the most common New Year’s resolutions are to eat healthy food, lose weight, and get fit. The question is – how do we do that?

These days we have way too many people telling us how. Information is flying at us from all directions. How do we know what’s true and what’s not?

The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against questionable nutrition and other health advice, products or services is to become an informed consumer. Know the difference between reputable sources of information and frauds.

There are some common themes in the health and nutrition misinformation out there. For instance, if it’s not supported by unbiased science-based research, is incomplete, or contains misspellings, think twice. The cancer advice I saw had the name of the reputable hospital it claimed supported the article’s conclusions misspelled. That set off red flags for me immediately.

There are lots of other red flags in most of these less than reputable claims.

Be on the lookout for claims that sound too good to be true. They usually are. Don’t waste your time on anything that promises a “quick fix.” How many quick fixes have ever worked long-term for you?

Don’t pay much attention to lists of “good” and “bad” foods. I’ve seen misinformation that tells people to completely forego eating an entire food group, like protein or dairy. How scary! Remember, we all need to eat a balanced diet. That means not banning entire food groups.

Be suspicious of any dire warning. If something is that dangerous you can bet more than one reputable source would be addressing it. Do a little research. Is anyone else making the same claim? How are they backing up the claim? I wouldn’t pay too much attention to recommendations stemming from a single study or simplistic conclusions drawn from a very complex study.

Realize that many people love to make dramatic statements. Are those claims supported by reputable scientific organizations? If they are, fine. However, most scientists let their findings speak for themselves, minus the drama. Plus, truthful nutrition studies are science-based, peer reviewed, and replicable.

It also pays to be cautious anytime of information indicating research is currently underway. That means there is no solid evidence supporting what you’re reading.

When shopping for nutritional or health products you also need to ask yourself, “Are they just trying to sell me something?” Lots of marketers make wild promises, including trying to capitalize on the valid claims of similar, but different, products. Many rely on testimonials or photos from satisfied customers or celebrities. Read the fine print. You’re likely to find disclaimers stating your results might be different. That probably means very different.

It also pays to know who the reputable information sources are. In terms of nutrition, you can always contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office or your public health department. You can also trust the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. If you’re looking for ways to improve your children’s health, you can find links on their website to “Let’s Move: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.” You can also find loads of solid nutrition and health information at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Just remember, if you’re looking for information on the internet, credible web addresses end in .gov (government agency), .edu (an educational institution), or sometimes in .org (non-profit). Web pages that end in .com (commercial) or .net (networks) are not always as trustworthy.

You can’t always trust people who call themselves a “nutritionist” or a “diet counselor.” These titles are not regulated and are often used by people who want you to think they’re experts, but they haven’t taken the time to earn the proper credentials. Just because someone is popular or on TV doesn’t mean they’re a qualified nutrition expert. If you want good, solid nutrition advice, seek out a qualified nutrition expert like a registered dietitian or a licensed dietitian and take your questions about dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, to a medical professional.

The bottom line? Don’t be fooled. Do your research. Don’t take everything you read, see or hear at face value. Be smart about your health and always be wary of anything that claims to be a miracle, cure-all, secret, easy or fast.

To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.

And if you’d like more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For more information, call 664-9502 ext. 217 or visit our website www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.

So, if you really want to live a long, healthy and happy life, pay attention to the sources of your information. And if you didn’t make Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day, here is something tasty that just might improve your luck in 2014.