The Rise And Rise Of The Health Blog: Is It The Language We Use?
This article originally featured in Network Health Digest online on 8th September 2020 - you can read this version over on their site by clicking here.
Health blogs have propelled themselves to the front seat by being catchy, relatable and simple. Charlie Cooke - Accredited Nutritionist and Fitness Coach - asks whether it’s high time we meet the readers in the middle with less information, less professionalism and with more human hands.
Is there anything more irritating than an absurd abstracted attempt to make an alliterated opening line?
I don’t think there is, but why is it they’re so popular in the commonplace health blogs that occupy the main seat of attention in the pantheon of health and fitness information?
These oxymoronic comparisons seem to make up the majority of all opening lines in popular health media. In fact, I spent far too long going back through archives of magazine and blog articles from a variety of low and high profile sites, in an effort to build the narrative for what is now this article, and came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that all such articles are written in a similar fashion.
First comes the introductory prose: the hook – the one magical line that sounds like it was written ‘just for you’ to showcase that this article has exactly the information you’re looking for. This comes in two forms:
- The previously mentioned over-the-top alliterated one-liner, which draws attention to its razzle-dazzle and witty humor to make you interested in the piece, or
- The comment of relatability, in the form of mentioning something that is uniquely (though generically) applicable to you, and how hard that aforementioned thing is.
However, here comes the drastic turn around, the blessed change in tone that your flabby body and unproductive mind needed to hear; the intonation that there is an incredibly simple solution which has been under your nose this entire time!
This is where we should take a little break (while the blog post and/or magazine article tries to sell you their incredible novel solution), to consider one thing: why is this so d*mn effective?
REFERENCE AND CITATION
Like the majority of NHD readers, I was, and always will be, a student of nutrition, dietetics and the sciences.
When I was an out-of-shape teenager, I was sold the world of fitness by poorly referenced articles from popular Facebook pages, believing that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were ‘natural’. All you had to do was “follow this one workout for killer arms”!
My epiphany (which I’m sure is the same for many others), came with checking the references. Of course, I was 14 and somewhat of an idiot judging by school grade performance, but it didn’t take much perusing to come to the conclusion that such references had almost nothing to do with the claims being in the articles I was reading.
SCIENTIFIC SIMPLIFICATION EXEMPLIFIED!
Let me give you an example. I could take a snippet of a journal which states “Sulforaphane lowers rate of weight gain by 15% and visceral fat by 20%”, and then write an article all about how you should eat a monumental amount of broccoli every day in order to aid your weight loss, because broccoli is high in sulforaphane.
It’s only science, right?
Well, it pains me to admit that this was, in fact, an area of nutrition advice brought to my attention by a genuine article from a globally distributed magazine… which I happen to work for. Naturally, I was curious, so I dug around for references provided by the editors, along with some jaw-dropping wider reading on the topic and found only one reference relating to this particular article’s claim. The title of the reference was as follows:
“Glucoraphanin Ameliorates Obesity and Insulin Resistance Through Adipose Tissue Browning and Reduction of Metabolic Endotoxemia in Mice” (Nagata N et al. 2017)1
Safe to say, I didn’t find any mention of broccoli.
The logic is simple: glucoraphanin exhibited this acute result in mice. Glucoraphanin is a precursor to sulforaphane. Broccoli is high in sulforaphane. More is always better. So, eat lots of broccoli.
WHY DO THEY DOMINATE?
So why - with all the work that organisations such as the BDA and AfN do to help protect the public from misinformation, and with the availability of information at our finger-tips – do such articles dominate the space of health and fitness information?
I am not posing as some kind of investigative journalist out to ‘expose’ the industry. The industry doesn’t need to be exposed. We all know that the claims made are bogus, so, why-oh-why do such articles keep winning attention?
Simply put, they’re interesting.
GRABBING THE HEADLINES
Why would any average person choose to pick up an article titled “Glucoraphanin Ameliorates Obesity and Insulin Resistance Through Adipose Tissue Browning and Reduction of Metabolic Endotoxemia in Mice”, in order to draw any meaningful conclusions in their life?
Answer? And I cannot stress this enough, it sounds really, really, boring.
In my years as a personal trainer and nutritionist, I started with the greatest intentions of educating my clients on nothing but the facts of nutrition research. I would explain insulin sensitivity and the influence of obesity and subsequent elevated oestrogen levels, etc. However, by the time I’d got to oestrogen levels, they’d completely glazed over and were almost begging to hit the treadmill!
Over the years, I have noticed that my descriptions have become simpler and simpler, to the point where now I describe things in a sentence and then just tell people what to eat. Is this starting to sound familiar? Tell someone to just eat broccoli to lose weight? Boom! Peak interest!
And right there is the second issue in the language we as healthcare professionals must face: simplicity.
USE SIMPLE LANGUAGE WITH CONFIDENCE
I am sure many of you will already be familiar with the Dunning Kruger effect,2,3 but I shall highlight it anyway.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a simple graphical representation of confidence in one’s knowledge (Y-axis) over one’s genuine knowledge and proficiency in the same subject (X-axis) (Dunning, D., 2011).
As we can see, there is a rapid spike in confidence despite very little knowledge, with a slow recovery steadily increasing over the course of what is many books, conferences, qualifications and journal entries in order to achieve the same level of confidence in one’s ability as someone straight off the boat.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is a representation of confidence in one’s knowledge. The bias results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; i.e. "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."2
‘Imposter syndrome’ directly correlates with the Dunning Kruger effect, in that the more you know, the less confident you are in it (Bravata et al., 2019).4 It’s an endemic underlying unease in the position one finds themselves, feeling that they do not deserve to be in said position.
For those who aren’t familiar with all this, here’s an example: I have worked with my fair share of personal trainers who still astound me to this day in how they passed their qualification. I’m not trying to be rude, but I have on multiple occasions been asked what a calorie deficit is and which exercises are ‘best to build big muscles’. This is by qualified and insured trainers, some of whom have more certificates than yours truly.
Yet, the confidence in which they project their information to their clients would run circles around many other, perhaps more competent trainers. After-all, people don’t pay you for what you know, they pay you for what you do with what you know.
The simplicity of the standardised health blog format negates such contradictions. It seems as though it is possible to read a single study, come to a conclusion, and then stand by it with such confidence as to broadcast it in print to almost every country on the planet.
Does a blogger have to read wider to risk any kind of peer review? Is a blogger held to any form of regulatory standard? Is there anyone with any form of qualification present to proofread the blog?
I think we know the answers to those questions. The challenge, therefore, lies uncomfortably with us – particularly those with a far greater knowledge of sulforaphane than me – to contradict such information, without insulting the intelligence of the writer and, most especially, the reader.
LISTENING TO ‘FRIENDS’
This relates to language difference number 3: the relatability of information.
If we insult a magazine as being low quality, we insult the reader as a consumer of low-quality information. Afterall, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
More importantly, the informal and conversational style in which magazines and health blogs are written makes the reader feel they are having a friendly conversation with John or Janet by the water fountain, picking up tips from that insanely shredded couple who adorn the magazine covers.
The reader likes John and Janet; he speaks to them every month and they are clearly in great shape; they must know what they’re talking about! They have been with the reader from day one of their fitness journey, and although they say something different every time they speak, this is irrelevant, provided our reader can keep up with them.
This relatable format is a resonating undertone between all consumer magazines. The shredded cover model, the witty hook and description of a relatable feeling, and the simple solution to the reader’s problem in an interesting and easy-to-digest prose. It is all relatable.
If this was an ‘us vs them’ war between health professionals and health bloggers, I wouldn’t be counting any eggs just yet.
ARE WE THE PROBLEM?
And here comes the grand conclusion: are we simply too stuffy in the way we write our information?
It is tough for any industry to be self-critical, but for those working with clients, it is no doubt that telling someone to change their diet or their body, is one of the most personal and challenging tasks a person can take up. It is inherently critical.
We negate this uneasy challenge to criticise a person’s body with our reliance on data, of percentages, measures and graphs. We mask our thoughts in objectivity and professionalism, as we are held in such high regard.
I am not claiming to be an expert, far from it, but I can state from my own experience that being relatable gets you far further as a fitness trainer than just being knowledgeable. And, if you take this prose as it’s written, then perhaps the fitness industry has cottoned onto such points faster than academia has been able to keep up.
Finally, let’s ask the question again: is it high time we meet the readers in the middle with less information, less professionalism and with more human hands?Is this the best for the long run? I highly doubt it. But, if it gets people through the door and asking questions, then that is what we need to grow our influence.
If you enjoyed reading this article, or you hated it and want to debate it, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I actively ask you to get in touch and open a discussion! Alternatively post your comments below…
- Nagata N, Xu L, Kohno S, Ushida Y, Aoki Y, Umeda R, Fuke N, Zhuge F, Ni Y, Nagashimada M, Takahashi C, Suganuma H, Kaneko S and Ota T (2017). Glucoraphanin Ameliorates Obesity and Insulin Resistance Through Adipose Tissue Browning and Reduction of Metabolic Endotoxemia in Mice. Diabetes, 66(5), p 1222-1236
- Kruger Justin and Dunning David (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. .Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1121-1134.
- Dunning D (2011). The Dunning–Kruger Effect. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, p 247-296s
- Bravata D, Watts S, Keefer A, Madhusudhan D, Taylor K, Clark D, Nelson R, Cokley K and Hagg H (2019). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(4), p 1252-1275
- Magazine T (2020). Deck Of Stats: 52 Kernels Of Knowledge. [online] TRAIN. Available at: https://www.trainmag.com/health/deck-stats-52-kernels-knowledge/ [Accessed 31 July 2020]