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Health advice online is often shady. 6 ways to detect the B.S.

By Rajul Punjabi

Much to our primary care physicians’ disgust, we’re all still googling health questions. It’s just easier than going to the doctor. Also, some of our questions are weird and we just want to confirm that we’re not dying or infecting our next hookup with something we aren’t sure how to pronounce. I was a health editor for several years; more importantly, I was sculpted by a mentor I like to refer to as the Godfather — a health journalism veteran who could sniff bias, a lack of credibility, or just run-of-mill woo-woo pseudoscience in an article from miles away.

Look, not every wellness story needs to be backed by a federal investigation. Personal essays add humanity and depth to sensitive topics like depression and addiction. But as the Baby Godfather of health journalism, I can confidently tell you that the interweb is spilling over with hyperbolic headlines, medical advice unsupported by science, and data presented in a misleading way.

If a health story misguides you, your actual health could be at stake.

This is arguably more egregious than other types of fake news because these stories are instructing you on how to live. If a health story misguides you, your actual health could be at stake. For example, a whole bunch of women have put yogurt in their vaginas when they had a yeast infection because blogs suggest it. That "quick fix" is not scientifically backed and not recommended for reasons you might intuitively deduce.

I invite you to read every article offering medical advice with the same skeptical eye you watch Fox News with. To help you do this, here are six things I like to ask myself when I’m wondering if I should trust what I’m reading in a health story.

Are there credible experts or academic studies backing the advice?

We’re talking original reporting from doctors, mental health specialists, or anyone else who holds expertise in the field being discussed. Also, I stress academic research because institutions of higher learning are less likely to be swayed by outside companies with special interests and a penchant for skewing data.

Are any of the experts in the piece biased?

It’s totally fine if an expert or source in a story is linked to a brand, but you want to be wary of someone who receives a financial kickback from taking a particular stance that may not fall in line with an unbiased expert's. Responsible publications will be transparent about a potential conflict of interest, the way the Times does about one of its sources, Dr. David Allison, in this article debunking the idea that red meat is terrible for you.

Does the story provide advice or a major conclusion gleaned from an animal study?

Mice studies are crucial to science, and offer valuable intel about the effects of drugs, for example. However, these guys are not direct indicators of human behavior or health; we absorb and process drugs differently because of the vast difference in our species. So certain headlines that make a grand, surprising statement — but when you look closely, are based on a rodent study — tend to be click-bait more than anything particularly useful.

Mirko Sobotta / Shutterstock

When was the story written?

If the study you’re reading is more than a year old, there could be a new story bolstered by more recent research on the subject out now.

What is the purpose of the site you’re reading the story on?

Is the site anchored in journalism (the New York Times, the Atlantic, or *cough* Mic, for example), medicine (Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic), or science (STAT News)? Or is it a media outlet that publishes mostly opinion pieces or product reviews? This is important in deciphering how seriously to take the medical advice.

Is a miracle cure or some other kind of “quick fix” offered in this article?

You know this one’s a red flag. Magical and time-efficient cures, for the most part, don’t exist. And when they do, they're not going to come in the form of a listicle. So, one more time for the people in the back: Don’t shove food items into any orifice of your body (without checking with your doctor first).