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If seemingly contradictory health news has you confused, it's time to learn how to read between the lines.
You can do so by keeping the following recommendations in mind the next time you hear or read about a new health tip in the media.
Be suspicious of advice that sounds too good to be true -- because it probably is too good to be true. Watch out for "experts" who say they can do what medical doctors can't.
Investigate the advice before following it. Closely examine who's giving the health advice and consider the possible motivations.
Watch out for the all-too-familiar sales tricks of the multi-billion-dollar health-fraud industry -- including word-of-mouth endorsements, sensationalized advertising and emotional success stories.
Look at the author's credentials. Where did the author go to medical school? What professional groups does the author belong to? Is the author board-certified in the specialty about which he or she is writing or talking?
Don't believe the first thing you read or hear. Look for similar articles or books on the same subject and compare what they have to say.
Look for a list of references at the end of the article or book that corroborates the ideas that have been presented. Was the article published in a medical journal or a popular magazine?
Check the information you find on the Internet against articles in medical journals or textbooks.
Look for the credentials of the author or the organization sponsoring the website. Missing credentials should be a warning that the information may be questionable. Information on the Internet is not regulated, and anyone can set up a website making health claims.
Good sites to explore for information are those run by medical colleges, health foundations and organizations, and government agencies.
Sites to read with a critical eye include those selling or promoting medicines or health products. Be careful of giving out personal information online, particularly credit card numbers, unless you trust the site.
Be aware that information you find on Internet bulletin boards and in chat rooms is personal opinion and anecdotes, and not necessarily medically accurate.
Put the advice in perspective. Most studies tell only a small part of a big story. Each study is part of an accumulating body of knowledge, so there will be contradictions and inconsistencies as research about an issue continues. Not until a significant amount of evidence has been collected and evaluated do government agencies or health associations draw conclusions and make new recommendations. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are good sources for sound medical advice. Also, most studies don't call for changes in established guidelines for healthful living. For instance, instead of worrying whether butter or margarine is better for you, concentrate on whether you're getting enough exercise and eating the suggested number of servings of breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables every day.
Don't follow advice because you want to believe it's true. Desperation can make people vulnerable to believing lies or bad information. Too much cynicism can be a bad thing, as well. Deep mistrust of traditional medicine can blind you so that you'll accept less-than-credible treatment recommendations.
Watch for attacks on mainstream medicine. Scam artists want you to believe there's something wrong with standard medicine in the United States, or that doctors and drug companies have conspired to keep secrets from you. To create a demand for their products, scammers constantly tear down legitimate medical practice. For reliable information, turn to reputable sources, such as the American Medical Association, American Heart Association, or similar groups. And check whether medical studies have appeared in credible journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine or Pediatrics. These journals publish studies only after a panel of medical experts reviews them.
Run the advice past your doctor. In most cases, physicians keep up to date on new developments or discoveries. Your doctor knows how to look at new health information with a critical mind and put it in perspective for you.
Here are several reliable sites for health information:
National Institutes of Health, www.nih.gov
National Library of Medicine, www.nlm.nih.gov