If you’re new here, hi! I’m Al, and I’m a scientist-turned-writer (and soon-to-be law student) and I am really, really sick of all of the bogus science in health and wellness. I started this blog because I wanted to create a space for evidence-based health and wellness. My goal is to empower people to better understand science so that they can fact-check wellness trends and make decisions for their health based on scientific evidence.
How To Fact-Check Wellness Trends Yourself
1) The easiest way to fact-check a wellness trend – check the source!
We probably all heard this in school, but cite your sources. If a source isn’t linked or put somewhere in a references list, it should probably make you examine things a little bit more carefully.
This is why 9 times out of 10 I link out to the actual studies I’m talking about — while other sites and blogs can be a good source of information, they’re not vetted in the same way as a peer-reviewed study. If you can’t find the original source of a fact or statistic, there’s no way to know if someone is telling the truth or accurately representing the facts.
2) Read the cited sources
If there are cited sources, check them out! I realize that reading a scientific paper can be scary if you’re not used to reading them, but if you’re looking for the right things, you don’t need to understand all of it to see if the conclusions are valid.
Understanding science is a bit like understanding a language. I’m fluent in French and speak Spanish ~okayish. As a result, I find that I’m able to skim texts in Italian and Portuguese and understand keywords. While I certainly don’t know everything, I can get a general sense of what something says.
I think of scientific papers in the same way — many people who haven’t had a scientific background probably understand some of the terms. You don’t need to be an expert to see if the conclusions presented in the abstract (basically the summary) make sense, or if a claim was taken out of context. Don’t get scared away by jargon!
3) Know the difference between anecdotes and evidence-based health and wellness information
While individuals may feel like something works for them, this isn’t enough to establish evidence. Anecdotes (i.e. stories of “this really worked for me!”) are all well and good, but they don’t do anything to establish a cause and effect relationship or guarantee that results will be similar in anyone else who tries it.
4) Check the placebo effect
On that same note, not all research is created equal. Determining whether a treatment is effective means you must separate out the placebo effect—whether or not a beneficial outcome is observed from the perception that someone is receiving treatment.
“Double-blinded” and placebo-controlled randomized controlled trials are the gold standard for determining whether or not something works. This means that neither the person studying individuals nor those individuals know which treatment they’ve received, and they’re divided into these groups by chance.
Other types of studies can still be effective, but without controlling for placebos, there’s no way to know for sure whether or not the simple perception of receiving treatment was responsible for the difference between those who were treated and those who were not.
5) Get familiar with buzzwords
Scientists tend to avoid words like “cure”. I can’t necessarily say this for health bloggers and influencers. The idea of a “cure” is pretty ambiguous — does it mean that a disease is gone? That it won’t reappear? Will someone be perfectly healthy after a “cure”? Can they expect to live a normal life after?
The same goes for words like miracle and breakthrough as well as healing and balancing. While these words are used a lot, there’s not really an agreed-upon definition of their significance, and to use them should cast some doubt on whatever claims are being made (and warrant further research).
6) Identify where people confuse correlation and causation
I got a bit into this on a recent article where I wrote about the link between deodorant (antiperspirant) that contains aluminum and breast cancer.
A European study from 2003 that is frequently cited in this relationship links more frequent use of deodorant and earlier onset of underarm shaving with an earlier onset of breast cancer. While this relationship is certainly worth looking into, it’s not sufficient to state that deodorant was the cause of an earlier cancer diagnosis. There are so many other factors that could contribute!
Confusing correlation and causation is a huge issue in wellness trends — it usually gets more clicks to draw a direct cause and effect relationship, even if it’s not accurate.
7) Check who paid for the research
Conflicts of interest are difficult to determine. In research, the sponsorship of trials of drugs by industry partners has been shown to be associated with more favorable trial results. While financial interests and author conflicts of interest are seen as a requirement, self-reporting is often lower than conflicts of interest discovered through external study.
On a similar note, I would also say to check the credentials of the individuals conducting the research. While I won’t say outright that all naturopathic doctors or chiropractors are full of it, it’s often a bit more difficult to sus out whether or not they’re being funded by organizations that serve to “prove” the validity of their therapies. The NIH publishes its funding for complementary and alternative medicine, and study-specific information is also available on clinicaltrials.gov.
8) See where the research is published
Peer-review, or the process where work is evaluated by other professionals in a field, is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, but not always the case for all journals. To check if a journal has been peer-reviewed, you can use Ulrichsweb.
You can also look at the quality of the journal. There’s a whole list of potentially predatory or questionable scholarly open-access publishers that you can find here. Additionally, you can check to see if the journal is “high-impact”, meaning that it should be heavily vetted and cited by those in the field. This isn’t always the case, because some of it is based on nepotism and sheer luck, BUT in general, it’s a decent metric to establish for a quick check.
Anything published in a “low-impact” journal isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s worth seeing if these findings are repeated in other studies and if other researchers are citing it or building off of it.
9) Look at the sample population
Lastly, (and this is a big one for me), look at the sample population. If it’s really small, or not representative of the people who are living with a certain disease or condition, maybe it’s not the best evidence.
I have bitched and will continue to bitch about this a lot, becuase unsurprisingly, the research gap disproportionately impacts women and people of color. Things that “work” in certain populations don’t work in others, for both physiological and sociological reasons. While this doesn’t always make for bad research, it does leave room to wonder if the findings are applicable across the board.
It’s a Lot of Work to Fact-Check Wellness Trends, Right?
If you read this and went “Wow, that seems like a lot”, that’s why I’m here. While my goal is to empower people to be able to do this research on their own, I recognize that it’s a massive time investment to fact-check wellness trends and often not what most people would elect to spend their nights doing. This is also why evidence-based health and wellness is a little rare in the blogosphere. It’s a lot easier to trust a company’s claim that you absolutely need something to be in good health.
For what it’s worth, I don’t link to journal articles I haven’t read and scrutinized in this way, and if I do, it’s often with a caveat about the quality of the research.
This means that I publish less than I would like to, but I’m putting quality, evidence-based health and wellness information out there. So, I’m ok with it.
As always, if you have a request for me to fact-check wellness trends, please send whatever my way or DM me on Instagram. I try to stay up-to-date on these things, but there are always things I’m missing.