It seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Who is actually qualified to give out health advice, and what are the best sources of health advice? Right now, everyone who has done a weekend class or less in ‘health coaching’ is a bonafide expert. Moreover, the media bombards us with ever-changing advice: first eggs are good, then they’re bad, and now they’re good again, huh? People are increasingly dissatisfied with the advice they get from their doctors, which proves ineffective for many conditions. Who are we to believe in this informational mess? This is exactly what I will answer, in this post.
Note: For the purposes of this article ‘health advice’ is defined as preventative advice on nutrition and lifestyle, and not the treatment of current health conditions.
Why Scientific Studies Are The Best Source of Health Advice:
Let me take you through the process of a scientific study, and explain why it is the best source of information on health and disease.
Conducting a Scientific Study
A scientist observes something that happens in everyday life. For example, he sees a man stung by a bee and the man seems to feel pain. At this point in time, he has only seen this happen once, so he does not know if it will happen again, or if the same will happen on a different person. Perhaps, bee stings only hurt men and not women. Or perhaps, this man has some kind of nerve disorder which makes him extra sensitive to pain.
The scientist then thinks up a hypothesis based on his observations: bee stings cause pain. Next, he designs an experiment to test this hypothesis. The scientist gets 50 men and 50 women and stings them with bees. He controls other factors that may influence the results, such as he asks them to refrain from drinking alcohol or taking painkillers. Also, he screens them for health conditions that may interfere with the results, and so on. After the experiment is complete, he collects the results and puts them through statistical tests to see how likely it is his results are due to luck. His results are sound and he concludes that 100% of people feel pain when stung by a bee.
Writing Up a Scientific Study
He writes up his study in the form of a journal article. Where he records the methods he used, the results he got and his conclusions. This information is given so that others can check the research was conducted fairly and the conclusions are valid. Furthermore, he writes in a neutral and objective style. He does not use many adjectives or other linguistic tools to attempt to influence the reader. The experiment is presented objectively and the reader is left to decide for themselves on its merit. The author also notes who funded the study and if he has any conflicts of interests.
Getting a Scientific Study Published
He submits his journal article to a scientific journal in the hopes of being published. First, the editor checks his research to make sure it is fair and a worthwhile contribution to the wider literature. Next, it is sent off to experts on the topic who also check that it is fair and worthy of publication. These experts usually remain anonymous to the author, and in some cases the author of the article also remains anonymous, to counter any bias towards him. If both the editor and experts like the article, it is published in the journal.
Reading a Scientific Study
Readers of the journal can look up the journal’s impact factor. This number shows the average number of citations an article in that journal receives. It is a rough indication of how important that journal is considered by other experts in the field.
Since the article is written objectively the reader is left to himself to decide if the study is significant. Moreover, any claims made in the article are supported by other journal articles (references). These are available for the reader to check. Other researchers may decide to repeat the study to check if the results are due to chance or if the conclusions of the study are true in other circumstances. Eventually, when enough studies point in the same direction, a theory is created to generalize the findings. This theory is upheld so long as the studies continue to support it. It may be modified or supplanted by another theory, in light of new evidence.
The Big Problem With Scientific Studies
Now you can see the rigorous process a scientific study goes through to get published and why it is the best source of health information. All possible bias and distortion are removed, so we can truly see how things work. However, the major problem is that the average person cannot be expected to read the primary literature. We need sources to disseminate evidence-based health advice to people. Currently, there are many ways this information is shared, but they all have their problems.
The Problem with the Media for Health Advice
TV, radio, and newspapers are 2nd hand sources of information. So they must be trusted to represent the studies accurately. However, the media’s agenda is not to seek the truth, but to sell papers and increase their ratings. They are businesses at the end of the day and are required to give their shareholders or owners a good return. Therefore, they report scientific information in a sensational way, to gain as many readers as possible.
Secondly, they report on one study at a time, which is cherry-picked for the juiciest headline. This is a fruitless way to assess the overall picture the evidence base shows. Thirdly, journalists at best have a science degree, which is woefully inadequate to understand complex the biochemistry and the nuances of the human body. Consequently, they cannot understand how each study fits into the overall picture of health and disease.
The Problem with Scientists for Health Advice
Scientists are actually a very good source of information for health advice. Typically, scientists deeply study one small area for their entire career. They will be able to tell you what the evidence base says, and the subtle nuances of the area. However, useless you talk to one in person it is hard to get health advice from them. Often the information stays locked up in their heads or in dusty academic journals.
Occasionally, a scientist will popularise their body of work through a popular science book. These are generally quite good, but rarely will the scientist have a broad enough understanding of health and disease to be able to provide a complete view. Moreover, they will often overstate the case for their particular area of expertise, and make it seem more significant than it is. Finally, they often have no clinical experience of applying this health advice to people, like a physician would have.
The Problem With Doctors and Traditional Medical Bodies for Health Advice
The obvious answer to our question is doctors. They are the ones we go to for health advice. They will have been taught what the science says and will be able to provide evidence-based information. However, the current medical model which doctors and medical bodies such as the NHS or the British Heart Foundation base their health advice on is completely faulty.
The model runs like this: we have X condition, therefore we take Y to cure it. Y in modern medicine is normally a drug or surgery. However, this assumes health problems have only one cause. Health conditions are a result of 1000s of dynamic factors. Including the person’s diet, exercise, circadian rhythm, hormones, toxin exposure, gut biome, trauma, psychology, etc. It takes a skilled professional to unpick these and solve the problem. Doctors do not do this, they simply prescribe a quick fix. This fails to treat the root cause of the problem.
The reason for the current medical model’s longevity is that it worked very well in the beginning. Simple problems such as wounds, or other acute care situations, have an X and Y format. It also worked well with infections like tuberculosis, that dominated early 20th-century medicine. However, now we do not die of simple problems like infections or wounds (well, not the majority of us). We die of chronic diseases, that are much more complex. Also, the world and what we are exposed to on a daily basis is becoming increasingly complex. Man-made chemicals did not exist 200 years ago, neither did social media, lightbulbs, fruit all year round, airplanes, wifi, etc. These new problems require a different medical model and not the old outdated allopathic one.
The Problem with Personal Trainers and Health Coaches for Health Advice
Personal trainers often provide a more lifestyle-based health perspective and are a source of health advice. However, a personal trainer qualification in the UK is a level 3 qualification. This is equivalent to an A level (taken at 17-18 years old). This knowledge is far too basic to provide decent health advice. Personal trainers and health coaches normal read around a bit, to get more information than their basic qualifications provide. This is usually blogs and magazines, rarely do they read journal articles, or have the expertise necessary to decode them.
Blogs and magazines are a mixed bag. Some blogs are written by experts and can provide good health advice. However, they are completely unregulated 2nd hand sources of information. It all depends on the author and their knowledge and expertise (an example of evidence-based health advice from me). Magazines are often written too simply to provide in-depth knowledge. They are meant to provide quick fun articles, to sell magazines. Nobody wants to read lots of boring biochemistry.
Based on their poor sources of health information, the majority of personal trainers are not suitable for health advice. There are a few that go the extra mile and have studied (properly) lots of other information, that they can share with you.
1. The Best Source of Health Advice: Health Books
Some books written on health are good sources of health information. However, since they are 2nd hand sources of information many do not fairly represent the evidence. Books by true experts such as researchers or experienced physicians can provide a great insight into human health. However, for every 1 of these, there are 10 bad books. A good health book brings together lots of primary research and the author’s clinical experience and gives true evidence-based health advice.
2. The Best Source of Health Advice: Functional Medicine Practitioners
Functional medicine is essentially the answer to the problem of modern medicine’s outdated model.
Functional Medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. Each symptom or differential diagnosis may be one of many contributing to an individual’s illness.- The Institute for Functional Medicine
A functional medicine practitioner understands that one health condition has many different contributing factors. They are able to unpick these complex pathologies and provide treatment plans that help a number of key issues that the patient is experiencing.
Functional Medicine is thoroughly evidence-based and practitioners should be reading the primary literature constantly. However, there is a wide variety of people who claim to practice functional medicine, therefore there is a wide variation in quality. Again, it depends on the individual and how much they have studied, and how much clinical experience they have. Signs of quality are: qualifications from the Institute of Functional Medicine, Master’s Degree, PhD, Medical degree, time spent practicing, books and publications.
- Scientific studies are designed to remove bias and find out how the world really works.
- They are published in scientific journals which are thoroughly quality checked, and therefore are the best source of health advice.
- Scientific journal articles are disseminated to the public by the media, doctors, scientists, personal trainers and health books.
- The media’s goal is to make money and therefore are not an objective source of information.
- Scientists are a good source of information if they publish books to popularise their work.
- Doctors give health advice based on a faulty model and are therefore of limited use.
- Personal trainers normally do not have sufficient expertise to give health advice.
- Health books written by experts are good sources of health advice.
- Functional medicine practitioners can provide individualized health advice based on the latest evidence.