“If you’re not qualified to talk about something, then don’t talk about it.” This is where I want to start. Because I worry every day, with my total lack of qualifications in science and nutrition, that I am not good enough to write a health food blog. And yet there are hundreds and thousands of us out there doing just that. So how do we make sure we're doing it as well as possible?
Since the backlash against clean eating blew up into a full rage earlier this year (which did make me want to give up blogging, but I came to my senses and wrote a defence), there have been many people complaining about health / food bloggers that don’t have a nutrition or science background.
And to a point I absolutely agree.
It is definitely dangerous for a blogger to tell readers to cut out entire food groups from their diets if they're not a qualified expert. And yes, anecdotal evidence and personal experience is absolutely no comparison for scientific research. And yes we all have a huge responsibility to our readers to present them with the best scientifically valid evidence for what we are claiming.
So with all that said, does that mean I shouldn't continue to write my blog or share my experiences because I don't have the relevant qualifications?
I didn't study nutrition. Nor do I have cooking qualifications: unless working in J’s Restaurant at Sainsbury’s when I was 16 counts...?!
But does that mean I have nothing to say and share on gut health and recipes?
I think that would be a bit harsh. And the world of health blogging would be poorer if it were reduced to only a small number of qualified practitioners, as valuable and educated as these people are.
Humans love stories, that’s how we’re programmed (I have no scientific evidence for this right now, but surely it’s true?!). We love to hear an anecdote: it's enlightening to hear Beki at Miss Wheezy overcoming her asthma to run 10ks, it's empowering to know that Lea at Can Eat Attitude has found a great love for the kitchen despite Coeliac Disease, and it's inspiring to see how Deliciously Ella managed to change her diet to help fight back against her Postural Tachycardia Syndrome.
Combined with a healthy dose of common sense and “do what works for you," "if you think you have an issue go and seek professional medical advice" - there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting our own stories online.
As long as you aren’t claiming your overnight oats cure cancer or your paleo slices will prevent heart-attacks single-handedly, you are well within your rights to share your ideas.
I think we all need to show a little more kindness and compassion to both writers and readers alike. We are all fighting our way through information overload and fake news every single day.
We don’t always get it right, but if we keep reading, writing, sharing and encouraging, the journey teaches us the really important lessons.
So I'm really trying to fight the fear of saying something 'wrong' and persevering with writing in my own voice about what I'm learning on my journey.
To help me along I've put together four steps on how to write a solid health blog, without having to go back to university:
1. Stick to what you know
I think this is a really important one and something I've been thinking about a lot in defining my own 'niche' in the health food blogging world.
I am not a nutritionist and do not have qualifications to advise others on what to eat. What I am an expert in is me: what feels right for me, tastes good to me and what gets me excited and motivated. So that's what I need to stick to.
As such I'll be steering my blog posts in future towards reviews, interviews, round-ups of other great content and advice pages. There will be less science-y bits unless I've got a specialist on-board or I am super confident about the sources.
I used these more science-y posts initially as a learning exercise for myself. But they were sometimes poorly researched (I am trying to rectify but it's taking time, see point 2!).
Now nearly a year on I am better at finding more reliable sources from across the web and will endeavour to share these instead.
2. Back up what you are saying with proper evidence
As I mentioned I am definitely guilty of this in old blog posts. In my haste to get the blog up and running I definitely did some early entries where I slammed the first link I could find on Google results as 'proof' of my statements.
I didn’t know the difference between a research based website and someone spouting any old nonsense. And I am a 31 year old with a bachelor’s degree from a Russell Group university, I'd like to think I’m not stupid.
Instead I want to steer readers to the research!
I love experts and people qualified in the field of gut health and nutrition – they are fuelling my passion for my blog and teaching me so much and I want to spread what I’ve learned from them.
The presentation was by Professor Whelan of the University of King’s College, London and I found this diagram really helpful so I am reproducing it for you all here:
The pinnacle in scientific evidence is a systematic review, but not everything has been scrutinised at this level yet. Acknowledge when the evidence you’re basing your claim on has a lower quality of evidence, and therefore affects its level of reliability.
This isn't easy, trust me, I'm trying! The Association of UK Dieticians have a series of fact sheets that are a great place to start though. Otherwise, find specialists that you trust and if you can't find what you want to know, ask them on social media. That's what I'm going to try to do.
3. Never say never
Never tell anyone to completely stop doing something. Even if you are convinced by the evidence you've found. And equally don't claim something is a 100% guaranteed cure!
If you are not a qualified expert your evidence is likely to only be anecdotal. What works for you might not work for your readers. It's something I've adjusted in my wording here on the blog since the clean eating backlash in January.
4. Admit your mistakes
If you shared something that you’ve since discovered isn’t true, or came from a rather dubious website or so-called-expert, then just admit it.
You could take the post down completely, particularly if you think the claim is dangerous. But otherwise I think it’s seriously brave and honest, and shows the human journey if you add an update to the post with your revised view, or a new blog post on what you’ve learned since.
The whole point of blogs is they are living and breathing and grow and change with you. So do your opinions. And so do scientists’ opinions too!
I will be keeping all these things in mind in future blog posts, and doing some tidying in the Pantry on my links too. I hope you will all see and benefit from a more thorough approach to research and evidence in the future!
Let me know what you think! Should health bloggers all have qualifications? Or does everyone have something to contribute?