It is difficult to separate quality sources of health and fitness information from misleading or untruthful information used for manipulation or product promotion. One of the primary reasons is because sources of quality information and sources of mediocre information both use scientific data to make their information come across as more factual or compelling.
Scientific studies are useful for supporting or refuting theories and claims, but they are also problematic, because data can be easily manipulated by anyone who wants to use the information to their personal advantage. Data manipulation has become widespread in all fields, but it seems especially prevalent in health and fitness, because scientific claims are effective for promoting and selling products like exercise equipment, supplements, and diets programs.
As a result, scientific studies end up being used to promote products that are never supported or even discussed in the original research. Another problem is the person citing the scientific data may form his or her own conclusions from the data, even if they are in direct conflict with those of the original researchers. The reality is that whenever scientific data is presented, you will not necessarily have all the information you need.
When companies use scientific information in advertisements, they typically only show the information that supports their products or services and any conflicting data is withheld. It is also possible to manipulate graphs or other images in order to support misleading claims2.
The simple truth is you can find scientific data to support practically any product, especially if you are not concerned about maintaining the integrity of the research. Some companies even hire researchers specifically to conduct studies that will support their products. In these situations, the researchers are motivated to create specific outcomes, so the research is biased and often inaccurate.
Research is critical for the advancement of knowledge, but you really have to watch out for the questionable ways many health and fitness companies use this information. For example, advertisements often make statements like “the group using product A improved 3 times more than group using product B,” but the exact changes in both groups may not be listed.
In some cases, the changes are so small that they do not reach numerical significance and are considered inconsequential. Therefore, the fact that one group improves more than the other doesn’t suggest that one product is any better than the other, but the information can be presented in a way that makes you think it is.
This is just one of many examples of how scientific information can be misused and it reinforces the point that you shouldn’t automatically accept scientific data as fact, especially when it is part of an advertisement or product label. When it comes to health and fitness product claims, it pays to be skeptical3.
1. Boone, T. Ethical Thinking: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?, Professionalization of Exercise Physiology online, ISSN 1099-5862 Vol. 6 No 6 June 2003. http://faculty.css.edu/tboone2/asep/EthicalThinkingANDexercisephysiology.html
2. Parish, D, Noonan, B, Image manipulation as research misconduct. Sci Eng Ethics, 2009 Jun; 15(2):161-7.
3. Weighing the Evidence in Diet Ads – Federal Trade Commission website. http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/health/hea03.shtm