Fearmongering refers to using fear to influence the opinions, beliefs, or actions of others. It often involves spreading exaggerated or misleading information, sensationalising situations, or highlighting potential dangers in a way that evokes strong emotions of fear, anxiety, or panic.
Fearmongering can be employed for various reasons, such as gaining support for a particular agenda, promoting a certain viewpoint, or manipulating public opinion. It can be seen in politics, media, advertising, and other spheres where the intention is to manipulate perceptions and behaviours through instilling fear.
Fearmongering is widespread in nutrition, where people often use it to sell products (useless but expensive food supplements) and services (fad diets that will mostly slim your wallet). These people have a very loud voice and huge influence, their opinions can be watched on Netflix (typical examples include the Game Changers, Seaspiracy and most food related documentaries), their « quick and easy diets » to lose weight seduce thousands on social media. It is in fact very hard to resist the pseudoscience and numerous magical claims that circulate online.
Here is a short list of typical fearmongering techniques in nutrition to help you identify them:
- Labelling foods or food groups as « toxic » without any evidence to back this up. A typical example is sugar, some people make a lot of money demonising glucose. They will refer to in-vitro or animal studies to support their extraordinary claims, and present them as a scientific truth.
- Claiming some foods cause cancer, again is totally wrong, and sugar is a typical example of this.
- Asking to avoid an ingredient if you can’t pronounce its name. About this I share this Wikipedia article about the dihydrogen monoxide parody. I personally find it quite funny, and invite you to play this trick on your friends.
- Banning foods has no scientific grounds, unless you are allergic to it.
- Putting foods in categories: healthy/unhealthy, good/bad (as if food had a moral value), etc. Food is meant to be enjoyed, some with moderation, but restricting food on the basis it it « bad/harmful/toxic » often leads to obsessing over it and can trigger eating disorders.
- Sciency buzzwords such as « clinically tested », « medical grade », « special formula » are meaningless, this is marketing not science.
- Can you think of anything else?
A difficulty is that providing nutrition advice is poorly regulated in many countries. You can declare yourself a diet expert and sell meal plans to anyone with no or little training. I am sure you can think of a few celebrities recommending unachievable and potentially harmful diets. And even people with credentials may use fearmongering to sell you something.
How to navigate those shallow waters?
First learn to recognise fearmongering, it will also help you beyond nutrition (remember the Covid vaccines!). Then find reliable sources of information such as registered dietitians and nutritionists. Be mindful that a blue mark or huge following is not an indication of quality nutrition advice, neither is a medical degree. Indeed, most GPs/MDs have little knowledge in diet and nutrition because this is a very very small part of their training. Your own GP remains, however, the first person you need to contact if you have medical concerns. Likewise, a competent dietitian or nutritionist will ask you to see a GP if they have any concern about your health.
In a future article I will share a few diets myths to stay away from.