Who Needs Facts When You Have a Meme?

A meme that deals with nutrition, weight, or fitness gains tremendous potency through the Internet and social media. Repetition bias goes into high gear and unproven, but plausible ideas can quickly reach so many people through so many sources that they can be impossible to extinguish. Because memes spread informally from person to person within a community, they are tailor-made for the Internet.

The problem gets worse when unproven suppositions are repeated as fact by expert sources. Here are a few examples making the rounds.

  1. Gluten. Awareness that some people have a physiological sensitivity to gluten that can cause serious health problems has grown dramatically over the last five years. This has brought a helpful awareness for people with celiac disease, as well as more healthy options for those people. It has also brought considerable hype as people perpetuate the concept of “wheat belly” as an important explanation for obesity. And it’s made tidy sums of money for opportunists selling the miraculous Wheat Belly diet plan and foods carrying the fashionable “gluten-free” label. Click here and here for more perspective.
  2. Fast Weight Loss. Looking for the promise of fast weight loss will bring you 250 million sources to sift from Google. It’s a promise that many people seek, but few will find a satisfying result. New variations on the promise of fast weight loss by this or that method rise and spread with the promise of impressive short-term results. They fall on reality that short-term results are lasting only if the changes that brought them are sustainable for the long term. The latest example is cleansing or detox diets that by their very nature are unsustainable. Click here for more perspective.
  3. Sugar Poisoning. Without a doubt, the amount of sugar in the American diet has grown to unsustainable levels. Awareness of this problem has grown to a point that consumers are shunning foods that they recognize as having excessive added sugar. That’s good. But this awareness has morphed into hyperbolic claims that sugar is simply toxic. Click here to read more.
  4. Grazing. The notion that people can lose weight by grazing — eating more, smaller meals daily — has gained uncritical acceptance through social networks. Recent research has debunked this myth. Click here and here to read more.
  5. Unaffordable Nutrition. The notion that junk food is always cheaper than good nutrition is a presumption that’s been repeated enough to be accepted as an indisputable fact. But it’s not so. Within common food categories, researchers have found that options with higher nutrition quality are available without requiring more money. Click here to read more.

The lesson here is that when it comes to nutrition and health, facts matter. Popular, attractive ideas of the day can easily be just as false as they are popular. Repeating an unproven supposition might make it more familiar, but it doesn’t make it true.

Click here to read more from Medscape.

Social Media Cat, photograph © Kevin Dooley / flickr

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