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Why Canadians put their trust in the web for nutrition advice

Dalhousie lab director 'can’t believe that the internet is so trusted, because there’s a lot of crap out there'
2021-02-10 food diet LJI
Social media and online sources can be full of conflicting opinions about what to eat. That can make it confusing, Kyla Detta said, to find the best diet for well-being — one that is balanced and enjoyable.

More than half of Canadians trust social media and blogs over doctors and nutritionists, according to a recent study.

Despite growing concerns about online misinformation, the findings — which are not peer-reviewed — will be unsurprising to anyone who has waded through the sea of online food and nutrition advice. For some researchers, however, they also point to an urge to find personalized information that fits our beliefs, even if it might not be true.

“You can basically find information that plays into that kind of more personal or tailored information perspective,” said Elizabeth Sillence, a professor of psychology at Northumbria University who was not associated with the study. “People do often have strong initial preferences and expectations for the kinds of information they’re looking for and that might influence the extent to which they trust it.”

The study, released last week by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, estimates that 53 per cent of Canadians trust the web for food advice. Doctors and friends or family members follow — about 40 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively — while about a quarter of Canadians trust other experts, such as naturopaths or personal trainers.

“The internet is clearly a big tool” for people to get nutritional information, said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Dalhousie lab. “(But I) can’t believe that the internet is so trusted, because there’s a lot of crap out there.”

Sillence said those numbers aren’t surprising. The web offers a vast repository of information, including emotion-rich personal testimonies. These often resonate with people’s lived experiences, particularly when it comes to food, nutrition, and health, she said. Medical professionals — or even official government or academic websites — often can’t offer advice that people feel is tailored to their lived experience of a nutritional or medical issue.

Not only that. In her research — Sillence studies why people trust the web over doctors for medical advice — she found that the process of online research itself can make people trust their findings more. Yet that research already leans toward a particular outcome the moment we start typing into the search bar.

“You might use certain search terms,” she said. Then, from the moment our browser fills with pages to consult, people start relying on their personal guidelines to vet websites or social media posts. Familiarity with the website and the person or information behind it are consistently top-of-mind for many, she said, but other indicators are at play as well.

“There are quick rules of thumb (people tend to rely on): Does the site look professional? Does the page have the right words? All that kind of stuff. Even then, people can really dismiss information, which might be quite good information, if they don’t see those indicators right away,” she said. They’ll keep searching until they find information that reflects their values, beliefs, and experiences, Sillence said — even if it might be inaccurate, misleading, or false.

The search for more personalized or relevant information isn’t all bad, Sillence pointed out. People can find solace or healing in connecting with others who share similar concerns or experiences. Often, those concerns reflect long-standing biases in mainstream medical or nutritional advice. For instance, women have regularly been excluded from medical studies; their medical concerns — like those of many minorities — have historically been dismissed by professionals. Both contribute to eroding trust in mainstream sources.

Still, taking web sources with a grain of salt is wise when it comes to nutrition, said Kyla Detta, a nutrition coach living in Ireland but originally from Canada.

“It’s hard to teach people when you have (them) swearing by specific diets” they found online, she said. Often, clients will come to see her swearing by a diet they found online that is not healthy or sustainable for them. Adhering to it is often brutal on their physical and mental health, she said, undermining their overall well-being.

Advice that offers a quick fix probably shouldn’t be trusted, Detta said. More important, she said, is building a long-term, healthy relationship with food that includes a diverse and enjoyable diet.

“Don’t use only online resources. You’ll get a lot of opinions online rather than people who come from an educated standpoint,” she said. “(The) goal with nutrition should be something that’s sustainable and enjoyable.”  

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative, Canada's National Observer

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