Most people on the planet are seriously unhealthy — a dilemma due in great part to massive amounts of health hype.
Recently an official from Facebook was quoted as saying the social media giant does not have a policy stipulating that any information posted must be true.
This speaks volumes about the information we feed our brains on a daily basis, in particular the most important information we consume — that concerning our own health and fitness.
And by the way, it’s not just facebook — that’s just the only media outlet being shamelessly honest about it, which is truly frightening.
Health hype and misinformation is harmful, expensive, unkind and unethical. It’s so ingrained in everyday messages from various media and marketers that most people get most of their health information from poor sources, and many actually embrace and believe it. While the production of health hype is rapidly rising worldwide, the good news is there’s a way out of the vicious cycle.
It’s never been easier to be infected by health hype — it’s everywhere. It follows us as false or fake news, as articles disguised as educational but originating from companies selling products, as carefully placed online rumors, and as entertainment.
The perceived complexities about health are part of the hype — marketers want you coming back for more because you’re confused. We’re led to believe the unbelievable, that there’s a heart-healthy diet, one that cures cancer, another just for athletes, and, of course, one for weight-loss. Some believe that science verifies or disproves through absolutes, or that there’s no consensus on most health topics — both of these are false.
The confusion about nutrition and exercise is so well-promoted that people keep jumping from one unhealthy product or service to another— it’s a great business model and money-making machine, but a bad way for individuals to get healthy. Companies continue taking advantage of everyone.
In addition, health education has primarily become health entertainment, with dangerous hooks everywhere.
Consider that an average U.S. supermarket carries more than 40,000 items, most of which are junk food and other unhealthy products, and virtually all associated with some form of hyped-up health marketing.
Beyond fake, hype is harmful — drawing you in with the right amount of interesting hooks and sizzle, a sprinkling of a fact or two for an artificial sense of reality, and a high dose of emotion.
Hype is hot. And it works. Companies generate massive sales by appealing to people’s gullible System 1 cognitive approach to decision-making. The result also leads to erroneous conventional health beliefs. The low-this, high-that diet, a machine to shed pounds overnight, the pill for every ill.
At one time, hype would just prey on those more vulnerable to marketing suggestions. But the information superhighway changed all that — now almost everyone in the world who is connected is also vulnerable, educated or not.
In addition to its strong business foundation, hype incentivizes publishing. Yesterday it was print and airwaves, and today it’s online eyeballs, with most companies vying for the buzz in your ears. Health hype going viral is the new hidden epidemic.
Here’s an interesting fact: Lies spread faster than truths online. Hype travels almost as fast as the speed of light. Recently, MIT’s Vosoughi and colleagues (Science, March 2018) used 10 years of social media data to show that fake news/lies reached up to 100,000 people but truthful items rarely reached over 1,000.
As mentioned earlier, many people get their health and fitness information from social media outlets such as Facebook. These should always be questioned, and checked against better sources. There’s a fair chance it’s not true.
Falsehoods create instant change in many people’s brains. Propaganda is powerful. The right hype is strong enough to dramatically move the stock market, change housing prices, alter political elections, trigger war, and instigate many other social factors. It’s an example of herd mentality. When it comes to health, hype changes people’s habits, sometimes instantly. One minute you’re a meat-eater, or vegan, the next you’re not. Adding emotion to the message is one reason hype works, making people jump on even the most ridiculous news with a tweet or like about a particular diet, drug or exercise routine.
Lies, of course, are in the same category as fake news, and, not surprisingly, analogous to junk food. All are harmful to everyone.
But try to calmly correct an inaccuracy with a fact, and people pounce on you because falsities remain so strongly ingrained. For example, many people still believe fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin A, yet they have none.
Health-related searches online are among the most popular, states Pew Research Center, with significant numbers of seekers saying the resources they find on the Web have a direct effect on their healthcare decisions, and even their interactions with doctors.
The “S” Issue
Whatever the various terms used in the game of hype, from true or false news to rumor cascades, or just bad reporting, and whether political, economic, social, or health- and fitness-related, the bottom line is virtually the same — it creates stress in our brains and bodies.
Stress is the single health-degrading factor in those exposed to hype — just listening or reading it. It’s even worse for those responding to hype’s unhealthy consequences. Whether yo-yo dieting, the start-stop exercise cycle, and the money wasted on sometimes the most bizarre, often harmful items, money that could instead be used to buy healthy food.
So health hype, whatever the source, not only can cost you money, and the added burden of increased stress, not to mention the time spent that could be used for healthy activities, it also can impair health and fitness too, affecting physical, biochemical and mental-emotional performance.
It’s appropriate that the word news is from the Latin, nova, meaning new things. New hype is the best kind, even if it’s recycled/repackaged old hype, which most of the time it is. While the concern over false news is real, little is done to fix the problem, how it can influence political, economic, and social well-being, and in particular, individual health.
Unfortunately, a “free” society has no regulation of health (and all other) information, other than by governments if there’s false claims about a product. Some professional certifying organizations encourage the dissemination of quality health information for patients, professionals and the general public, emphasizing certain ethical standards for health education websites. These include publishing authoritative materials by those with expertise, and the use of scientific references to support key topics.
You’ll see academic and clinical health sites that follow these standards, including the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), websites from Colleges and Universities, PubMed (the US National Library of Medicine which posting scientific journals and textbooks), and “patient pages” in certain journals like JAMA. Online sources of health information meeting academic and clinical standards include HIIT Science, the Mayo Clinic, Medscape, and, yours truly, www.philmaffetone.com.
These sites not only are professional, but look and function that way too, unlike sites full of health hype.
One should also always consider conflicts of interest by those writing health educational information or publishing research, which virtually everyone has, whether a paid university professor, a book author, or a pharmaceutical researcher.
A most important factor when considering the quality of health information, regardless of the source, is the reader’s critical thinking, which relies on our System 2, logical brain. Sure, it takes longer to study, evaluate and understand a health topic, but this approach can improve the quality of useful information we take in, and the quality of life.
In addition, choose your news wisely: avoid junk marketing and media trash. A Nielsen reports shows American adults, for example, still spend about five hours per day watching TV — over 35 hours a week! Much of this contains health hype.
- Instead of watching the news on TV, enjoy a glass of wine, listen to music and unwind from the day. If you’re watching a movie, mute the commercials.
- Instead of listening to the radio while driving, switch to non-commercial music.
- Eliminate exposure to print media — junk mail, newspapers, magazines, etc. Unsubscribe. And don’t pick up publications that are free.
- Beware of online junk, especially when searching for health topics. Follow reputable health websites that are educational and research-oriented, and that emphasize self-care, rather than off-the-shelf type diet and exercise plans.
Despite all the hype, the bottom line health advice has never really changed much over the decades. There really is a consensus among most scientists and clinicians — the best approach to better health is au natural: eat real food, especially plants, with daily moderate activity.