Can we trust the media for nutritional advice?

Can we trust the media for nutritional advice?

Should we take what the media say about nutrition with - pun intended - a pinch of salt?


When it comes to seeking nutritional advice, a voice that is often heard loudest can be the mainstream media.

You open the newspapers, and find out that coffee can cause cancer. Then you access the same paper a few weeks later and they tell you that coffee has a superior nutritional profile. Then you see a headline saying a particular diet is bad, and then read the article in more detail and it doesn't necessarily go along with the headline.

Then you get another article saying that the opposite diet of what they spoke about last week is better. It can get super confusing, right? If you've been relying on the mainstream media for your food advice, you would be forgiven for not making the kind of progress you would want in seeking out consistent, healthy lifestyle choices. And who could blame you?

Confusion is the game

Running contradictory stories is what allows media outlets to sell papers and to get clicks, and nutrition is no different. If you are told one thing one week, and then a completely different thing the next, it creates intrigue, gets clicks and keeps people coming back to the same news outlet for more.

It's up to us to show awareness and see whether what we are being told matches up with common sense, if not the scientific consensus. Also, do we really think news outlets really care about public health?

This is what the media want to create - not to give you actionable information for your health
This is what the media want to create - not to give you actionable information for your health

Headlines, headlines and more headlines

What creates more discussion and contention than anything else? A juicy headline. In the case of nutrition, that's a dangerous game to play as there is too much nuance to put everything into one catchy headline.

Putting the context of a detailed study into a headline and then an article without adding nuance is doing the public no favours whatsoever.

A perfect example of this was The EPIC-Oxford study, which looked at the dietary implications of meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians/vegans between 1993 and 2001.

This study has been a much-used study in recent times, and it led to headlines at the back-end of last year stating that 'Vegans and Vegetarians may have higher stroke risk".

Scary headline of course, particularly given the rise in popularity of healthy plant-based diets.

But what the headline didn't tell us were the details of the study. Out of the 65,429 men and women, 18,840 were lacto-ovo vegetarians and only 2596 were vegan - clearly not enough vegans to get an accurate measurement of their eating patterns.

What's more, the vegans were lumped in with the vegetarians - again, not doing a great deal of good when it comes to the accuracy of the data.

One last thought - with the data coming between 1993-2001, do we think that we would be getting the healthiest of vegetarians and vegans than if we were to do a study like this now?

Today, we have far more resource on how to live a healthy plant-based diet, and that's something the writer of the media article didn't take into consideration.

The EPIC-Oxford study makes for a great headline and news article, but the paper itself says a lot more
The EPIC-Oxford study makes for a great headline and news article, but the paper itself says a lot more

Causing controversy

This definitely isn't the only example, and certainly won't be the last. This month there was a study that came out claiming that meat eaters had better instances of mental health than vegetarians and vegans, who were more at risk of depression and other cognitive issues.

Again, the media had a field day with this - conveniently during Mental Health Awareness week - but a closer look at the study showed that there were some flaws in the data - pointed out by world-renowned neurologists Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, as well as a statement at the end of the paper that the study was funded by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

A clear conflict of interest which makes you wonder how the resulting news article would have been received if this information was in there?

Again, we have to remember that causing controversy is a primary tactic used by mainstream media outlets. It allows them to sell papers, get clicks, and increase their readership.

Unfortunately plant-based eating seems to be on the receiving end of media scrutiny - a strange take considering the scientific consensus has shown time and time again that a healthy diet focusing on plants will reduce chronic disease risk and promote health.

This continued media confusion is a regular occurrence; given how plant-based eating is on the rise, media outlets will jump on poorly-designed studies and write scary headlines to get clicks from their readership - the majority of whom will not be eating a plant-based diet.

It's important that we understand that the media plays a huge part in creating confusion around dietary patterns.

And when people are confused, they will often take the safe route and continue to do what they've always done, regardless of whether its healthy or not.

The best thing to do is to take a step back, do your own objective research on healthy eating and lifestyle patterns, and do your level best to ensure that media headlines don't influence your thinking.


1) EPIC–Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non meat-eaters in the UK

2) Vegetarians have a 20% higher risk of suffering a stroke than meat eaters 'because they miss out on key vitamins': Daily Mail

3) Meat and mental health; a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety and related phenomena: Dobersek et al

4) Eating meat may improve mental health and one in three vegetarians are depressed, study suggests: Daily Mail

5) Myth-busting: Meat and Mental Health: Team Sherzai on IGTV