THE BLOG
06/30/2011 12:34 pm ET | Updated Aug 30, 2011

Teasing Out Fact From Fiction in Your Health News

One of the great things about living in the digital age is the immediacy of news. You can get breaking updates 24-hours a day from infinite sources. For a news junkie like myself, I could not ask for anything more. Tablets, smartphones, iPads, computers, thousands of television channels ... it's everywhere!

Yet a byproduct of this "real-time news" is that members of the media must fight for our attention. Journalists struggle to keep a steady stream of interesting news flowing and they must compete with "citizen reporters" who can upload a photo with a flick of their finger. Talk about a tough job. I admit, I always check the customized Google alerts that are delivered right to my handheld device. But we all need to take a step back, especially when looking at the latest health news.

When looking for medical news and advice, you need to consider the content and the source, and take it with a degree of caution and perspective. Who is the author? Do they have medical expertise? There is simply so much information out there, some of which is valuable and some that is completely unfounded. In this digital, fast-paced world, we must be diligent, because perspective can be easily lost and superseded by its flashier cousin: sensationalism.

Supermarket tabloids are appropriate places for extreme headlines, but such headlines can be misleading -- and even downright dangerous -- when it comes to medical information. And given the fact that we are constantly bombarded with all this "breaking news," it can be hard to separate the true from the false.

For example, have you been flipping television channels and come across commercials for the latest supplement, shoe or contraption that will convert even the softest physique into a chiseled beach body? Beautiful actresses, personal testimonials and compelling "before and after" photos attest to the miraculous results that these products will deliver. But the sad truth is that many of these products have never been tested and will not deliver on their extreme claims. Yet according to a report by the Federal Trade Commission, Americans continue to spend billions every year on these products.

A study at Colorado State University found that approximately 50 million Americans go on a diet each year however, only 5 percent are able to keep off the weight. These deceiving weight-loss products and claims only add to the problem. I make sure to tell my own patients that there is no "magic bullet" for weight loss. Maintaining a healthy weight requires making positive lifestyle changes such as sensible eating, watching portion sizes and being active. That guidance might not be sensational, but it is a lot more likely to work.

Lately I've seen some sensational stories that could lead to consumer confusion. Just a few weeks ago the topic of sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as sinister ingredients reared its head once again. If you believed what you read, these sweeteners are to blame for everything from obesity to global warming. Referred to as "the crack of sweeteners" and the "devil's candy," HFCS is perhaps the most misunderstood ingredient.

I believe the core components of HFCS are the same as table sugar, or sucrose. Many nutrition experts as well as my colleagues at the American Medical Association and the American Society of Nutrition, acknowledge this. In fact, in 2008, the American Medical Association issued a statement noting that HFCS does not appear to contribute any more to obesity than sugar and other sweeteners.

Now, let me be clear that eating too much of any kind of sugar -- like eating too much of anything -- will pack on the pounds. But I don't think that sugar is "Public Enemy #1." Sugar occurs naturally in many foods like fruits and vegetables, and it provides energy that helps our bodies function.

What people must remember is that sugar has calories, and that calories consumed must be balanced with exercise to maintain a healthy weight. Again, this message is hardly sensational, but it is hopefully reassuring to those of you who were thinking of purging the pantry of every last Girl Scout cookie, your mom's fresh baked apple pie, that bag of carrots or bowl of bananas. Stick to a balanced diet, regularly exercise and enjoy occasional treats in moderation.

So does this mean you should cancel your Google alerts or stop reading the latest news? Of course not! But I would urge readers to keep a healthy dose of perspective and skepticism when looking at the latest headlines. If something seems too good to be true -- like, say, if you read that pomegranates cure heart disease -- it probably is. And if a product is demonized, educate yourself about both sides of the debate and make an informed decision on your own.

Nutritional moderation and exercise might not be as sexy as the latest fad diet or over the top nutrition story, but it works. So save your tabloid headlines and sensationalism for treadmill reading -- not your health news.

Dr. Pamela Peeke is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and author in the fields of nutrition, stress, fitness and public health. She is Chief Medical Correspondent for Discovery Health TV, and the author the bestselling books "Fit to Live," "Body for Life for Women," and "Fight Fat After Forty." She serves as a frequent commentator for national broadcast networks and works with several food and beverage companies including The Coca-Cola Company. Dr. Peeke holds the position of Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.