Have you researched the highly advertised appetite suppressant PGX? It sounds safe... But would it really be that much more effective than a couple glasses of water and an apple? Also do you use whey powder in smoothies? What are the best plant-based protein sources?
I’m going to give you the most librarian answer there is: QUESTION EVERYTHING, and do your research.
While I can't necessarily provide answers to direct questions (again: not an expert, just opinionated or well-read in some areas), I *can* provide guidelines on how to research and decide for yourself!
When it comes to anything related to “diets” – whether it’s a new study, a pill or supplement, or a fad diet itself, I trust no one. I research the hell out of it before deciding to try something. First, I try to find out “is this potentially harmful? What are the negative side effects or consequences?” If I don’t find any, then I’ll ask: “does it work?”
More often than not, if it’s not actually harmful, it’s not effective.
So, let me break it down. When you hear about the latest and greatest, these are the questions you should ask yourself:
- Who stands to profit from this? And am I seeing an advertisement or press release carefully disguised as a blog post, article, or testimonial? There’s nothing wrong with someone making a profit, but you’d better question their motives if it’s all about the bottom line. Is a celebrity schilling it? Because chances are, if it needs an endorsement, it probably can’t stand on its own feet. Frankly, my rule of thumb is that if Dr. Oz is promoting it, it’s crap. That’s perhaps not fair, but he will lend his name to anything. And his image gets used without permission on more items than you’d think.
- Were studies done? Who did them? Because not all scientific studies are conducted without bias. Again, the main question is who funded the study? How connected are they to the company producing the final product? Next question to research is whether it’s a peer reviewed study, and whether there are several studies that independently reach the same conclusions.
- When considering the results of the studies, think about how long they followed the participants, and how long the results were maintained. If it’s only been 6 months to a year, that’s not really long in people terms. I want to know if a pill that makes you lose weight also helps you to keep it off 5 years later, not just 5 months later. Also, were the participants mice? Because you wouldn't believe the number of conclusions reached about weight loss that are based on mice. It's a start, as far as research goes, but the results don't always translate directly to humans! I want to know about the studies with, y'know, real people in them.
- What are the ingredients? Many times, when you look at what is actually IN a pill capsule, you realize that you could make your own variation much more cheaply, and what you’re buying is packaging. A good example is how many products use caffeine as the magic ingredient, because it either speeds up the efficacy of the other drug it’s interacting with (like acetaminophen), or it’s what makes you jumpy and feel like something is working (in pre-workout concoctions). If caffeine’s the thing that is raising your metabolism, you might as well drink coffee, take a much cheaper caffeine pill on its own, or at least be aware of it, because if you don’t realize it, then you might just be raising your blood pressure needlessly. Or dangerously.
- Is it sustainable? How often do you take it, and for how long? What happens when you stop taking it? This is true for supplements and diets alike. Once you start, what happens if you stop? Is it something that you can maintain, in the case of a diet, for the rest of your life? (Think about shakes, meal replacements, or even severely restrictive diets: can you realistically keep to that regimen forever?)
- Can you get the same thing from a natural source? Like, raspberry ketones are a big thing these days. So is green tea, and acai berries. All of them can be purchased as pill formats, because the active ingredient for weight loss has been broken down and isolated. Wouldn’t it be better to just eat the acai berries, or to eat raspberries, or to drink green tea? Look into what the studies actually found, because sometimes the amount you'd have to ingest in its natural format (like with green tea) is so high that it would be nearly impossible to drink that much. On the other hand, with many foods the chemical compound that is the active weight-loss ingredient works best when it's part of a whole, or when combined with other elements, and it loses its magic when it's isolated into a powder. Acai berries are being promoted as a superfood for their antioxidants but blueberries are just as effective (and way more readily available, and tastier). Understand what, exactly, the studies found and what amounts are effective, and in what format, to save yourself money at the pharmacy.
- What’s your source? Is it credible? If you’re using Google, understand that advertising often looks the same as legitimate links. And companies pay for Google rankings. Search engines are not benign. Also, a lot of ads look like news articles. Read the testimonials carefully. You’ll notice that a LOT of them are exactly the same, even though they're promoting different superfoods, diets, or supplements. It’s ad copy. That’s how you know you’re essentially reading a press release and not a unique article, let alone a study. But you only realize this once you've read enough of them for it to sound familiar.
You have to do your research, and that takes time and a critical eye. Question absolutely everything.
A big problem today is oversimplification. Information gets dumbed-down to sound bites and headlines. People don't want to read a lot of text. Even a news report that is unbiased may be honing in on one aspect of a finding, or they may blow the results of a study out of proportion, which is how we get wild claims and superfoods and diet fads. Everything is over-hyped, from the weather to the obesity crisis and all the possible solutions to it. As consumers, we have to sift through the information to separate the grain from the chaff, and only select the healthy and digestible parts. It is overwhelming.
So, where do you start?
First, find a few credible sources. Having “Doctor” next to a name doesn’t mean everything, but that PhD does make someone more reliable if they are actively researching or working within an academic institution. I follow Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s blog, Weighty Matters, because he questions policy related to obesity. Dr. Arya Sharma is an often-quoted expert whose balanced and cautious approach is based on a reasonable and realistic understanding of the science behind obesity. Both are Canadian, which can make a difference when it comes to policy or regulation. Dr. John Berardi of Precision Nutrition is also Canadian, and a trusted source for nutritional information. Not every popular or well-known name is bogus, but I trust the celebrity doctors and nutritionists and trainers - the "personalities" - far less than the people who spend their time in a lab or working with patients on a regular basis.
Start by searching for criticisms and reviews. If you just Google the diet, or the pill, or the food, you’ll have to wade through all the ads, the testimonials, the rah-rah-this-is-the-best-thing-ever kinds of results. Those sites PAY to be at the top of a Google search. So, search smart: include the word “review” or “criticism” or “negative results” in your search. All it takes for me is to find two sources explaining why something is bogus for me to believe it. Don’t fall for the positive hype! Your mantra should be "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
How many sources can you find to back up the claim? This can be tricky, because a lot of news outlets pick up a story in the rush to be the first with breaking news, and so mis-information gets repeated until we believe it. Having said that, I still look to find three or more sources that seem to independently find and say the same thing, about a diet’s results, or a food’s properties, or a supplement’s efficacy. And I look to see if they are all quoting from the same original source (regurgitating the same interview or article in different packaging).
When researching online, what kind of website are you on? The dot-coms are usually commercial and selling something. If it’s a dot-gov, then it’s put out by a governmental agency. One would hope that it makes it more credible, though that’s not always the case. These days, anyone can create a website or blog ("hi!") and say whatever they want to say. Whose site is it? Is it someone who makes their living in the fitness industry? What is their role and reputation? Is there transparency? I would find someone who wants to share information freely to be a better source than someone who requires you to purchase a subscription or service in order to access their latest and greatest secret, but if they are a professional (trainer, body builder, chef) and staking their reputation on the information they put out, it’s probably more accurate than a news magazine.
And, please, for the love of all that is accurate and factual, get yourself to a library! Don't rely solely on the Internet. While there is equally bad information in books, newspapers, and magazines, these are sources which have usually had to go through some kind of editing process. A little bit of fact-checking, so the information was somewhat accurate at the time of publication. (Always a good idea to check the publication date, because medical and nutritional information can get old and outdated FAST; go with fairly recent dates). You don't even have to go in to the library to research. Most libraries will have databases you can access with a valid library card. And a database is sort of like the Internet (it's online and you search it), except that what you're searching is a collection of magazines, articles, and encyclopedias. You know the source, you get more journals (peer reviewed! academically sound! well-edited!), and you can narrow your search to get better results.
There is so much information out there, and it's overwhelming to wade through it all. I find it overwhelming to process the accurate information, and figure out what to do with it, let alone have to take into account the myths, misinformation, and outright lies.
I may not be able to answer all the questions that come my way, or give concrete advice about what you should do. But I can always help to find a resource that will.