Why you really shouldn't rely on the Internet for health advice

The Internet drives us crazy with conflicting health information

Illustration via Bruno Moraes (Licensed)

All you need is this ‘one simple trick.’

We’ve all been there. We’ve wandered into the health and lifestyle section of your favorite online news source (ahem) only to be inundated with conflicting information. Coffee is good for you today, bad for you tomorrow (well, more like it was bad for you yesteryear.) Drinking in moderation is actually good for your health! Wait, no it’s not. Oh, and mindfulness, whatever that is exactly, will cure your lower back pain, keep you calm and stress-free, or drive you insane, maybe.

So then you go to just check the weather, and see an article about that “one weird trick.” Doctors hate her! And you hate the doctor now, because you’re not sure if the doctor even knows right from wrong and up from down.

Why is health news always in conflict with itself?

There are several reasons, but one of the main ones is that a lot of health news stems from human and animal studies. Both of these types of studies have limitations. For animal studies carried out on lab animals like mice, rats, and certain primates, the findings of these studies are only so applicable to people. The way a mouse metabolizes a certain type of food may be quite different than the way a human does. Human studies, on the other hand, are limited by what we scientists and other watchdogs can agree is within the moral bounds of human experimentation. For studies in diet, or other long-term studies, that can be difficult because we have to let people live their lives while also trying to keep them within certain boundaries of the research.

We’ve come a long way in understanding how the human body works, but we still have a ways to go. 

We’ve come a long way in understanding how the human body works, but we still have a ways to go. To put it in perspective, the germ theory of disease (that is, that illnesses are caused by microbes and not a imbalance of humors or ‘miasmas’) only took hold in the 19th century. Aspirin, in some form or another, has been around for centuries and was commercialized in the early 20th century. Yet we didn’t fully understand how it worked until 1971. The human body and how it works, particularly on the cellular level, is still very much a black box.

But science forges onward, and at a crawl that is hopelessly outpaced by the restless frenzy of journalism. Health and science reporters need to do things like pay bills and eat food, so they tend to cover one study at a time, explain what that study says, and—if they do a good job—put that study in perspective and explain its limitations. Nonetheless, sometimes studies conflict with one another, so sometimes coffee is good for you and sometimes it’s bad for you. But then there are bigger issues, like whether your bacon habit will land you in the cancer ward some day, or if ‘bad’ cholesterol is really that bad after all, that can have bigger impacts on your overall health. For the health-conscious, it’s dizzying to try to keep up, and some people may construct belief systems that lead them down a path that science will later decide was unhealthy after all. What can you do?

I’m by no means an expert. I’m not a medical professional in any way, and my only science degree is an undergrad in biology. But I have a little experience as a health journalist and, in addition to writing for the Daily Dot, I also write a daily column for doctors about questions their patients may ask them based on what’s popular in health-related news that day. Which means I read a lot of those single-study health stories every day. Here’s what I’ve learned:

In general, don’t sweat it

Do you move your body regularly? Do you not smoke, eat vegetables every day/meal? Would you not describe your consumption of any particular food group or alcohol as “copious?” Are all your joints moving in the right direction? Do you generally have an easy time sleeping? Are you not in constant, debilitating pain? Do you feel generally good and not bad or weird? Then, in my totally non-medical, non-expert opinion, you are probably doing everything right. But you know, check with your doctor because your doctor is a doctor and I am not nor ever have been a doctor.

Talk to your damn doctor already

The Internet is not a good source of health information and advice, whether you’re reading it on a news site or WebMD—especially if you’re reading it on WebMD. The Internet is full of information written by people who are probably not experts and may or may not have conflicts of interest. Lots of people on the Web who are trying to peddle health information or lifestyle advice are also trying to sell you something. Be skeptical.

Lots of people on the Web who are trying to peddle health information or lifestyle advice are also trying to sell you something. 

Your doctor is the best source of advice for what you should do for your health. This is not only because they’ve had extensive training and education, but also because they have access to your medical records, your family history, and they actually know you. Ask your doctor to give you more information, if you want it. Don’t let them brush you off with an unsatisfying answer, either. Channel your inner curious toddler and berate them with “Why?” until you feel your question has been fully answered.

Accept that someday you’re going to die

Your health is something you should absolutely take very seriously. I’m not advocating for a “live fast, die young” sort of attitude here. But if you’re finding yourself constantly frustrated by health news to the point of casting off all your favorite little rituals or vices in favor fastidiously checking bags of kale to make sure they’re certified gluten-free, maybe take a step back. There is only so much you can do to affect whether or not you get cancer, Alzheimer’s, or pretty much any other deadly disease you’re likely to encounter in the Western world, and you’re probably less in control than you think.

The optimum lifestyle to be “healthy” is a moving target, and frankly a personal one. Different people have different medical needs and it’s looking more and more like there’s no one-size-fits-all “best” diet. If you want to live your healthiest life, talk to your doctor about what you should do. The best advice a non-expert can give you is probably to not smoke (and stop if you do), try to eat more veggies, and maybe get off your computer and go for a walk outside more often.

Cynthia McKelvey covers the health and science beat. She likes to think of herself as a professional buzzkill. In her spare time, she enjoys rock climbing and posting copious cat videos to Instagram. Follow her on Twitter @NotesOfRanvier

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