Reader beware.

Long time readers of this site may know that I've had some pretty serious health problems in the past couple of years. Last year while undergoing emergency surgery for a horribly infected insect bite, I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes. And in August, I got the diagnosis that everyone dreads getting. Perhaps because of this, I've become extra sensitive about online information about health. The more I've read and researched, the more I've become aware that, while there is a lot of great information out there, there's also a lot of iffy crap being disseminated. And you know, bloggers are amongst the worst offenders of this. I include some of my fellow food bloggers.

I see blogs out there who blithely tell people how to self-diagnose themselves, and even self medicate, for serious illnesses. I see nutritional advice that may or may not apply to anyone othe than the writer. I see more than few instances of pandering to hypochondria, intentional or not. I also see the unquestioned acceptance of, and dissemination of, wrong or dubious medical, health and nutritional information. And it's just not right.

A while back there was a movement to get food bloggers to sign up to a uniform code of ethics. While it addressed things like disclosing whether a restaurant meal or a product mentioned on the blog was paid for by a third party or not, it didn't say anything about the need for at the minimum, attaching disclaimers to any information with potentially harmful effects, or stating the qualifications of the person espousing that information.

This is not just limited to blogs run by individuals either. I ran into an issue with a 'big' health blog some years ago, which decided to twist my words and spout out some laughably wrongheaded information. I still look back on that incident with disbelief. Sheer common sense would seem to indicate that ingesting lumps of highly refined carbohydrates, including tons of sugar, is not conducive to any kind of weight loss. But there it is. (I see that the original post is not reachable anymore, though it stayed up for a long time after it was posted. (Update: you can read it in the Internet Archives.)

Soon after my pre-diabetes diagnosis, I did think about including more diabetes information on these pages. But after a while I found myself unable to do so with good conscience - because the information out there can be confusing and contradictory. The diabetes eating movement seems to have somehow gotten all tangled up with 'low glycemic index' eating, 'low-sugar' eating, 'low-carb' eating, and even 'gluten free' eating . They are not the same, but people get them all mixed up.

For what it's worth, I do think that low glycemic index eating (which emcompasses low-sugar and to some extent, low-carb eating) may be beneficial to diabetics, but that is just my layperson's opinion. It's worked fairly well for me, in conjunction with medication (I'm not on insulin), but that's just one case.

That is always important to remember when reading about eating guidelines online, whether they apply to diabetes or any other illness or medical condition. (Food allergies are an especially murky area.) Most of the time it's a layperson's opinion. That layperson may or may not have done adequate research, and asked a lot of questions. That layperson may have some preconceptions and prejudices that you are not aware of. And what works for that person may not necessarily apply to you.

I know that, especially in the United States, there is a general feeling of mistrust against the medical establishment, "Big Pharma" and the establishment in general. In addition, a lot of people unfortunately have inadequate health insurance, so they must turn to sources other than their family doctor (do family doctors even exist anymore in America?) or other medical professional they can meet with face to face. So they turn to the internet. This can be a dangerous thing, unless you go about it in an analytical way. The bottom line is: Check many sources and keep an open mind. In terms of trust, I would place more in information from long established organizations before that of a individual blogger, however wonderful his or her writing may be. Least trusthworthy of all may be information presented by organizations with some sort of axe to grind. (There are several of those in the soy controversy area for example.) But in any case, take your time and check many different sources. I am a born skeptic and cynic myself, and I always think that it's a good thing to gather information with a skeptical frame of mind.

Since I'm exposed to medical and health information from three distinctly different cultures and countries - the U.S. (and the UK...these two share a lot, besides the language, though there are differences), France and Japan, I see a lot of discrepancies as to what is considered good or bad for you. For instance, in France the belief in massage with special creams and massagers to get rid of cellulite still holds sway, although that's been largely debunked in the U.S. In the U.S. green tea is supposed to be so healthy for you that you can get it in all kinds of format, including with loads of sugar or HFCS added to it. You can even get green tea extract in stuff like moisturizers, for crying out loud. In Japan, green tea is an everyday, common beverage, so instead the amazing weight loss and other benefits of exotic teas such as mulberry leaf tea or various Chinese teas are touted. So what's going on here? It's up to you to go out and find out more, rather than swallow something without question just because 'everyone' says it's 'so good for you'.

Some health and eating information seems to be universal. Fresh vegetables are good for you, as are fresh fruit in moderation. Eat a balanced, varied diet. Watch your sugar and fat intake, especially the saturated kind. Whole grain products are generally better for you than refined grain products. Get some exercise. Don't stress out too much. Most things above and beyond that seem to be up to debate. (In my layperson's opinion, moderation and real food are keys too. It's fine to drink brewed green tea, but taking concentrated green tea supplements is unexplored territory. Eating tofu for dinner? Great! Taking massive doses of soy isolates? Not so much.)

In any case, if you do see a food blogger (I'm not naming names, since I am not here to call out specific bloggers) who tells you that his or her way to eat is the only true way, you may want to back off a bit. Even if that blogger is me - especially if that blogger is me. (If I start writing stuff like that, you can be sure that I've lost the plot.) Determining whether a food blogger is a good cook or not is easy; just try out a couple of their recipes, and see if they work as advertised. Determining whether the information they spread is good or not is a bit more tricky and requires some work on your side.

And if you are a fellow food blogger reading this, and you haven't already clicked away, please dispense of your sage advice with caution and care. As an individual blogger, I really feel it's so important to self-edit ourselves. Like it or not, total strangers listen to our advice. It's a sobering thought.

Further reading

When it comes to covering medical and science issues, mainstream media can be one of the worst culprits in spreading half-baked or even erroneous information. If you're interested in a skeptical look at journalistic coverage of these topics, the Bad Science blog is a great place to start.

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