Millions of Americans use the Internet to find nutrition and health-related information. Just how reliable is the information on the Web? How do you separate the good information from the useless or potentially dangerous recommendations? How can you tell the experts from the charlatans, the credible sites from the incredible ones?
Used wisely, the Internet can provide great resources from background information on diseases to abstracts on clinical trials and recommendations on diets and supplements. Unfortunately, not all sites are reliable. Many exist just to make a buck, sometimes at any price. And since there’s no peer review, there is no guarantee that what you’re reading is accurate and up-to-date. Even the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates Internet commerce, can’t shut down unscrupulous sites – it can only force them to stop making unfound claims. For every site they go after, five more seem to take its place.
With those limitations in mind, the Web still is an excellent place to find out about nutrition, health and disease. Here are some practical tips to help you navigate around the Internet.
- Be reasonable. Don’t believe everything you read. Maintain a healthy skepticism. Watch out for buzzwords like "poison" and "conspiracy."
- Mistrust products that claim to cure everything. Also, mistrust sites that sell those cures.
- Be wary of testimonials and anecdotes. One individual’s personal story and word-of-mouth reporting does not qualify as scientific evidence.
- Be suspicious of statements full of jargon and unfamiliar words that disguise a lack of real information. Scientific words like "colloids", "enzymes" and "antioxidants" may or may not mean anything. Beware of words like "breakthrough," "secret ingredients," "miracle cure" and "ancient remedy."
- Look at the source of the information. Professional organizations such as the American Dietetic Association and Food and Drug Administration are more likely to have credible, reliable information than an unknown person or a single-issue site.
- Get a second opinion on what you find on the Web. Check information with that found in standard reference books. Share your findings with your health-care professional. Use what you find as a basis for questions.
- Avoid working with any "Internet doctor" who doesn’t have your medial records or hasn’t met you personally. If you do use Internet doctors, use them as sources of information, not prescriptions.
- Pass up cyber-salesmen who claim that the government, medical profession and scientific mainstream are in cahoots to suppress their products, or that doctors don’t really want to cure cancer, heart disease, the common cold, etc.
- If you have prescriptions filled online, have your own physician do the prescribing, not some cyber-pharmacist who doesn’t know your health history. Also, don’t assume that the online price always is cheaper – some sites charge more than regular pharmacies.
One Web site that reviews health sites and rates them for their reliability and usability is the Tufts University Nutrition Navigator. Located at http://www.navigator.tufts.edu, this site is a good one to bookmark when you want to check out the integrity of Web sites.
With a little common sense, cyberspace and health can be a good match. Here are some Web sites with reliable information:
- http://www.healthfinder.gov (U.S. Health and Human Services).
- http://www.fda.gov (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).
- http://www.cancer.gov (National Cancer Institute).
- http://www.americanheart.org (American Heart Association).
- http://www.cancer.org (American Cancer Society).
- http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration).
- http://www.webMD.com (commercial site jointly funded by over 70 health organizations and news agencies).
- http://www.mayohealth.org (Mayo Clinic’s health education Web site).
- http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hinfo.html (U.S. National Library of Medicine Health Information Web site – includes MEDLINEplus with health information for consumers and PubMed with abstracts of research and review articles).