5 Questions to Ask When You’re Navigating Nutrition Research

— By Kayla Parsons, RDN, PhD Student, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Nutrition information is easily accessible in today’s digital age. Magazines, advertisements, books, blogs, podcasts, social media platforms, and every person you know probably has something to say about nutrition. Eating is a universal behavior, with food serving an integral role in health and well-being, expression, and culture. That being said, it can be difficult to determine what exactly a healthy lifestyle is, when multiple opinions are circulating in the wellness space. This article breaks down key questions you should ask yourself when trying to learn about nutrition (or any other topic!).

1. Who is the author?

Authorship can provide hints on if what you’re reading is evidence-based or an opinion. When consuming nutrition information, ask yourself if the author is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or registered dietitian (RD). Both credentials refer to experts in the field of nutrition and nutrient metabolism. To become an RDN, individuals must attend an accredited college for several years, complete a dietetic internship in clinical, food service, and community settings, and pass a national accreditation exam. In comparison, being a “nutritionist” legally requires no credentials, training, or education. Additionally, other health professionals, such as medical doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and chiropractors are experts in their respective fields but traditionally have minimal training in nutrition. Can’t find an author? Check out the organization behind publishing the information. Examples of trustworthy organizations for nutrition information include the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

2. Does this information seem like a cure-all?

There’s something enticing about a “quick fix”, but in terms of nutrition, best practices are to incorporate a variety of healthy food choices across the span of a lifetime. This can look different for everyone! The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 emphasize the importance of customizing and enjoying nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.

3. Are there biases present?

Bias occurs when someone is presenting their personal opinion or perspective as fact, rather than sticking with the evidence. For example, picture your favorite influencer describing that the only way to feel healthy is by following a month-long juice cleanse (which as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I highly would not recommend). As the consumer, we might not know that this influencer is being sponsored by a juice company, or benefitting in some way from presenting this information; which leads me to my next point.

4. Who is funding the article?

It’s important to assess funding when critically evaluating information. Funding can go hand in hand with biases, and influence what information is being presented. Oftentimes, when media is funded by an industry (think nutrition supplements or food products), only positive results will be reported, persuading the consumer to purchase the item. In nutrition-related media and research articles, sponsorships and funding sources may be available towards the bottom of articles or posts.

5. Is this information wildly different than what you’ve previously come across?

Finding new research, especially when it’s about food, can be fun and exciting! It’s important to ask yourself if what you’re reading contrasts all previous findings on a heavily discussed topic. For instance, if you see an article encouraging people to avoid fruits and vegetables, you can guarantee that this is not evidence-based, as there is a mountain of previous research from vetted sources explaining their numerous health benefits.

Not sure where to look for information? Start at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Program website. Cooperative Extension works to empower local members of the community by providing them with relevant evidence-based research.