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Does Health Information Overload Sabotage Real Health?

Is Too Much Health Information Causing Confusion? | Food and Nutrition Magazine | Stone Soup Blog

Article author photo. Timi Gustafson, RD This featured post is by Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND. You can follow this blogger @TimiGustafsonRD.

Nutrition counselors know how frustrating it can be to give advice without it resulting in a desired outcome. We've seen our share of repeat customers and "dropouts" — clients who eventually give up on weight control, regular exercise and improving their lifestyle choices.

What's behind these results? A 2014 study based on data from the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey found that conflicting or contradictory diet and health information in the media made recipients more likely to ignore or dismiss even widely accepted recommendations.

Participants in the survey who had the greatest exposure to inconsistent information expressed the most confusion about nutrition matters, according to Dr. Rebekah Nagler, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication and lead author of the study report. "Greater confusion was associated indirectly with backlash against nutritional advice in general, as indicated by agreement with statements such as 'Dietary recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt,' or 'Scientists really don't know what foods are good for you,'" Nagler wrote. 

Similar reactions were found with regards to the importance of exercise and the consumption of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Another reason why some people give up so easily on health advice may be that desired results often don't come as quickly as we'd like. If it doesn’t work right away, this line of thinking goes, there must be something wrong with the particular regimen or lifestyle change. But straightforward solutions are usually hard to come by.

A study from Wageningen University in the Netherlands used a web-based survey of 241 adults and found that oversimplifying descriptions in black and white terms — "good for you" and "bad for you," or "healthy" and "unhealthy" — can also hinder successful weight management and adherence to better eating habits. "All or nothing responses to minor dietary transgressions" can frustrate the best of intentions, according to Aikaterini Palascha, a nutritionist and behavioral scientist and the study's author. Dichotomous thinking and rigid dietary restraints are often a crucial factor in people's inability to maintain healthful diets and weight control, she says.

What makes most people deviate from good eating patterns is not so much that they are confused, but rather that they are conflicted. Tweet thisWe may want a magical formula for weight loss and other health issues, but no such thing exists. However, that doesn't mean we are at a complete loss. To the contrary. Experts, including Dr. David Katz, believe there already is sufficient consensus on what individuals can do (to use one of Dr. Katz's favorite quotes from author Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.") to make the necessary changes to overcome, or at least diminish, our current obesity crisis and many related diseases.

But because this involves hard work and education, people may be tempted to let it all go. But that's a decision based on how much we are willing to invest in our well-being — not a matter of confusion about how we should go about accomplishing it.

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND, is a clinical dietitian and author of the book, The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, which is available on her blog, Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

(Photo: Jamie Grill/Hemera/Thinkstock)

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