People with diabetes can’t always tell fact from fiction. And with the internet awash with conflicting sources of information on diet, exercise and glycaemic control, it’s easy to see why. In the space of just two weeks, the Daily Express alone published or republished 17 clickbait headlines on diabetes, often misleading, and designed to appeal to readers’ fears about their health.

Here are a couple of them:

Of course, that’s not to understate the public health crisis currently facing the nation – a recent estimate by Diabetes UK suggested a record 12.3 million people are now at elevated risk of developing Type 2. But we urgently need to stem this flow of misinformation.

Even the broadsheets can be prone to misrepresenting scientific evidence. The Guardian, for example, ran in August with the headline “No healthy level of alcohol consumption, says major study”. That referred to a major mata-analysis of 694 studies to work out how common drinking was, and a further 592 that assessed the health risks, accounting for a total 28 million people and published in The Lancet.

The researchers found that for each extra drink consumed in a day, the harm increased, and that the lowest level of harm was zero drinks – the basis of the Guardian’s headline. It isn’t, however, that simple.

The study showed that 918 in 100,000 people who consume one drink a day can expect to experience an alcohol-related health issue. Yet 914 of those people will experience such a health issue no matter what, meaning only four in 100,000 do so as a direct result of consuming one drink a day(1). The study also did not account for other factors that may have been the actual cause of harm – drinkers are more likely be poorer and to smoke, for example.

Again, this is not to understate the risks; it’s beyond doubt that drinking is detrimental to health. The point, however, is that misleading headlines create a widespread lack of understanding what constitutes an achievable, healthy lifestyle – with significant implications for public health.

Many people are unaware, for example, that consuming carbs, not fats, is what typically leads to weight gain. Another common misconception is that Type 2 diabetes is a sign of having eaten too many sweets, rather than too much bread and pasta.

Peer support groups for diabetes can be tenuous in reliability too. A 2011 study of health social networks, published in the Journal of the American Medical Infomatics Association, found that only 50% were aligned with clinical practice recommendations (n=10).

Users of Changing Health’s programme for diabetes management, which combines evidence-based education on diabetes with behaviour change support, consistently tell us they were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of conflicting viewpoints on diet they had found online. Their GPs typically only have the time to hand them a stack of leaflets, and while the NHS website goes some way to helping, there’s more that could be done.

We must counter this deluge of misinformation by providing more people with clear, evidence-based guidance and support. If we don’t, there’s only one likely outcome: incidences of diabetes will continue to rise and with them, the strain on health economies across the nation.

1: New York Times, 28 August: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/upshot/alcohol-health-risks-study-worry.html

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