I am not talking about alcohol or drugs. I am a recovering Internet 'research' addict.
One article on phytic acid leads to another about chia seeds then another about curing eczema and before I know it I have diagnosed the whole family with candidiasis or thyroid problems.
Having learned the physical warning signs I now know on a bad day when I read a very impassioned article about the evils of a particular foodstuff my heart will start racing. My mouth becomes dry. My palms sweat. And I start clicking on links furiously trying to get to a definitive conclusion.
Sound familiar? Those clever people who design websites and targeted marketing know how our brains work and have lots of clever tricks to keep us coming back for more. The 'answer' to how to have a perfect diet always seems one Mercola article away.
As a documentary maker I had to digest lots of technical health and scientific information and come to a balanced view. So why do I have this over-reaction when it comes to looking at my own health and diet? Why are a lot of my very clever, balanced, well educated friends guilty of the same thing?
I believe it's very difficult to be dispassionate when it comes to our health or our children's health. Any talk of illness sends up the red flags in our brain and panic sets in, we think if we work a bit harder we can solve this problem. Really? So there are professionals toiling away in hospitals and academic institutions across the globe who will admit that nutrition research is in its infancy and they don't have all the answers, but I will be able to self diagnose and work out a treatment plan for my family if I just get another half hour on Google???
In my saner moments I know that something as complex as nutrition cannot be broken down into a set of rules but it would make life so much easier if it did and there in lies the attraction of looking for 'the ten foods you must eat every day' or the 'food you must never eat if you want a flat belly'
The internet is neither good nor bad. It can be a fantastic resource for medical information, accessing communities and of course finding recipes. However it is only as useful as the person navigating it.
Firstly you will always find what you want to! It's not dissimilar to playing with one of those kids toys that can 'guess the answer'. If you put in 'grains' and 'bad' you are going to find lots of paleo articles with convincing scientific argument telling you grains are indigestible and should be avoided. 'Grains' and 'good' will take you to lots of content from advocates of plant based diets who will have compelling evidence for why grains should be a staple in your diet.
Secondly, do you trust yourself to differentiate between good and bad science or to objectively consider the evidence? It goes without saying that there is bad science posted on respectable looking websites. But what about properly researched science? Are most of us really capable of extracting principles from detailed one-off studies? Do we know who sponsors these studies? Do we know the context? Do we ever go beyond the headlines or summaries to read the original study and if we did, would we know what other studies appeared at a similar time that put forward a contrasting view?
Most of the time we access studies via a website or blog. Those authors all have a view point and even subconsciously will be looking for research that supports that viewpoint. I have greater respect for someone who admits that there is no compelling evidence for any one diet and is prepared to be flexible in their thinking than someone who is using scare tactics to aggressively push their point of view.
Consider why someone is telling you what they are. Do they have a book to sell? Is it a sponsored post? If not, there is still question of how do they verify the information they are giving you? Be wary of the 'Facebook effect'. People who continuously post about their wonderful life and perfect children are self editing. Similarly people who write about food are not going to blog about the days when they could cheerfully smash their Teflon free pan over their child's head for refusing to eat their greens. (Hopefully this last point will be rectified when there are more English sites v American ones as I think we 'do' failure so much better).
But what about testimonies from people who have tried dietary interventions and found relief from medical problems? These people are not earning money from telling their stories, they have no axe to grind? I think this is a true and certainly trying things on the recommendation of other parents is something we would do generally in life. I think it's important though to remember that a written comment can only give you a snapshot of how they are feeling at any given time . Take GAPS. Within the same blog I have found one article saying it is the answer to all the author's medical problems but another post six months on blames the protocol for further burning out her adrenals. I myself felt great for a few months on a paleo type diet but then my skin and energy deteriorated and I felt I was craving sugar more. Also, we all have different physiologies and different schedules and this has an impact on our nutritional and energy needs so what works for someone else might not work for us. We know this instinctively but it's easy to forget when we are bombarded with images and information.
There is also human psychology to take into consideration - once we commit to an idea we look for the positives and with diet it seems we are very prone to mixing up the feel good factor of trying something new and feeling in control, with definitive medical progress (similar to the placebo effect). So whilst I would certainly consider other people's experiences I cannot assume my body will respond in the same way or that their will be long lasting benefits.
In dealing with my addiction I have come up with some guiding principles. If lots and lots of people are recommending something and it's fairly harmless then I will happily give it a try - for example having a teaspoon of honey and cider vinegar in the morning to ease digestion. People have been recommending it since my granny's day and if it's pointless it's a fairly inexpensive placebo. If there is anything more contentious or its a cutting edge technique I would seek out a professional (doctor, nutritionist etc) to give me some expert advice. Take for example chelation therapy that is recommended for 'heavy metal detoxing'. An article on this could appear next to a discussion about whether banana skins can be used to cure verrucas. However chelation therapy can be a dangerous procedure, especially for children and needs to be carefully considered within a team of qualified people.
Even when the factual basis behind a belief seems strong I remind myself that nutrition is a new science and there is still a lot to learn Therefore I have stopped looking for points of difference and now look for where viewpoints meet (see my other post) because actually for all the posturing, there is often quite a lot of consensus.
Most importantly (and one my nutritionist keeps remind me of when I start to spiral) is I need to listen to my body rather than treating eating as a reductive science. By not eating crap and eating clean food I have the ability to pick up clues much more clearly. And going for a walk in the fresh air or getting two hours more sleep should help my digestion more than sitting glassy eyed in front of a screen playing detective!
So as the old saying goes 'take everything you read with a pinch of salt' (Himalayan rock salt of course:))