Helpful or harmful?
4 expert ways Austinites can decipher healthy wellness tips from harmful fads
Who doesn’t want more health and wellness in their life? As we head into the New Year's resolution season, it seems everywhere you look, experts are dishing out tips on everything from preventing illness to living longer, and looking great while you do.
But these days, when everyone has a platform, it can be hard to separate the good from the ridiculous — or even harmful. Before you order that jade egg, blend up the latest juice cleanse, or pay for meditation class, do a little digging to find out where that information is coming from. Here, are some tips to get started.
Consider the source
Many health and wellness tips come directly from people with related expertise, but it’s still important to check out the experts. “People can have a PhD in anything,” says Michael Mackert, director of the Center for Health Communication at UT’s Dell Medical School (who does, in fact, have a PhD — in mass communications). “But what does that mean? Conduct a search on that person and see who they are and what expertise they have.”
If you read something in an article, look for additional articles about the same topic and, ideally, figure out where the news originated.
Mackert points to research that shows some people avoid .edu and .gov domains because they expect the information to be complex, or they don’t trust government health information. But, he adds, many websites from educational and government sources have good information geared toward the public, meaning you don’t need a PhD to read it. Some reputable sources include the Mayo Clinic, The Cleveland Clinic, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Institutes for Health (NIH).
Check out claims made in ads at Truthinadvertising.org and find reviews of health and nutrition products at ConsumerLab.com. The Food and Drug Administration website contains warning letters sent to those making unsubstantiated claims for their products.
Check the research
When a tip comes from scientific research, look up the original paper. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to understand the science.) Look for three things: the journal that published the research, the researchers who wrote the paper (authors), and their funding sources.
First, be sure the journal is a reputable, independent source that publishes papers reviewed by scientists other than the authors, also called a peer review. Valid research does appear in trade journals (publications serving a particular industry, such as pharmaceutical manufacturers), but take these with a grain of salt, as they usually exist to promote the industry. Think Journal of Nutrition versus Nutraceuticals World.
Second, look at where the authors work. Most, if not all, of them should be at universities or government institutions. Independent research institutes and think tanks do great work, too, but many have a particular agenda and may not fund or publish research that runs contrary to it. Some "research institutes" even exist solely to promote a particular industry and are unlikely to fund truly objective research (these days, for example, you wouldn’t trust lung cancer research from a research entity funded by the tobacco industry).
Finally, look at acknowledgements and statements of conflict of interest to see who funded the research, which is usually located at the very end of the paper. Money from for-profit companies or industry organizations may be a red flag.
Still not sure? Search for additional studies on the same topic and see whether those reach similar conclusions. There’s some strength in numbers here.
Contemplate potential harm
Some wellness practices probably don’t do much good, but are free and unlikely to cause harm (walking barefoot on the ground comes to mind, although it might matter where you step). Some, however, can actually be dangerous or costly.
Most of us have a trusted friend or family member who works in the health field, and Mackert suggests talking to them before you buy or try something unfamiliar. Even if someone doesn’t have specific expertise, they can give feedback on whether something sounds right or not. If you’re contemplating a major change, it’s probably a good idea to talk to a doctor or nurse familiar with your health and history.
“Be perpetually skeptical of easy solutions to complicated health issues,” warns Mackert.
Remember the big picture
Don’t stress over whether you should try the latest wellness fad. Tons of research and personal experience teach us basic things important for overall health and wellness. Get plenty of sleep and follow a regular sleep schedule. Eat more fresh foods and less of the processed stuff. Exercise. Spend some time outside. Drink water. Nurture close relationships with people you care about and who care about you. Have an annual physical. And remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.