I know for a fact that just about each and every person reading today’s article knows, or has encountered, a “nutritional know it all”.
You know, that person who makes outlandish claims about certain foods or supplements and just drives you absolutely crazy.
You see this type of person quite often online and if you are lucky enough you might even know one in person. Some of them even have large audiences of people who follow them.
This person probably worries, troubles and annoys you.
So , what can you do about it?
Whether or not you are a health professional yourself, if you are someone who keeps informed of health topics, I do believe you have some responsibility to hold people accountable, especially if you believe they may be spreading incorrect or dangerous messages about food.
Let me give you an extreme theoretical example of such a message
” Haven’t you heard sugar is toxic, you should be cutting down your fruit intake”
To a savvy practitioner, this statement is ridiculous, but you can hardly blame the everyday person for taking notice of this message if it comes from an influential source.
So what do you do if you encounter someone spreading messages like this?
Follow these five steps
1) Give them the benefit of the doubt: This first step is internal. You must approach the situation with the appreciation that this individual is probably not sharing information with the goal of being harmful, damaging or misleading to others. Unless you have reason to believe otherwise, approach the person assuming they are sharing this information with good intentions. (Although this won’t always be the case.)
2) Acknowledge the statement or claim they are making: Before anything else, acknowledge and clarify the statement the individual is making so you can be 100% sure you are not jumping to aggressive or irrational conclusions. Sometimes people make claims that are sound, but that can be misunderstood or poorly communicated. Once you are clear as to exactly what you are dealing with, you can move on to step 3.
3) Inquire about the source of the information: Reality suggests that, if this person is making an outlandish claim about a nutrition related topic, they have probably acquired the information from some ( apparently unreliable) source. It is highly unlikely that they have just pulled the claim out of thin air ( although you never know). Your next step is to inquire, in a respectful manner, about the source of the information which you believe to be erroneous.
4) Dispute the credibility of the source and justify: Now is your opportunity to provide insightful feedback as to the credibility of the source of the information from which this person’s claim originates. Try to provide a sound reason why that source of information is unreliable before moving on to step 5. Try using this line ” if there is no evidence, then all it is someones opinion and anyone can have an opinion.” If this person questions your lack of credentials ( let’s say you aren’t a dietitian, for example) refer them to someone with a strong background to support your concern. This will also help with step #5.
5) Provide alternative/stronger evidence: It is not enough to just refute an erroneous statement, you must also provide the correct or more accurate interpretation. If you are online, this could be as easy as linking and explaining a more reliable academic source. This may prove more difficult in person, but the same principles apply and perhaps the refuting evidence can be provided via smart phone. Use this opportunity as a “teaching moment” where you can gracefully share tips on how to better ascertain whether or not information one comes across is reputable or not.
6) Meet Them Half Way/Agree to disagree: In a perfect world, the conflict ends after step 5. In reality, humans are stubborn creatures. Even if you diligently follow steps 1-5, there is no guarantee your person of interest will concede their stance on the topic. At this point you have two options. You can lose your patience and temper and jeopardize all of the effort you put in up to this point OR you can try to offer a compromise. Perhaps the individual is not willing to fully abandon his/her view point but maybe you can agree on some modification of the finer points of that view that align it more closely with the truth. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for and you may have to accept that.
Live to fight another day, so to speak.
When it comes right down to it, all people deserve respect. Yes even those who make questionable nutrition claims from time to time. If you are in a position of greater training and understanding, use that position to support and enlighten, and be sure to carry yourself in an upstanding manner while doing so.
I hope this helps you deal with that friend or person you encounter online that really grinds your gears with all their erroneous nutrition talk.
Until next time,
Andy De Santis RD MPH