DIY Prozac? The Problem With Health and Fitness Research

Greatist's David Tao takes a look at the disconnect between research and health and fitness media — and suggests how we can start to bridge the divide.
DIY Prozac? The Problem With Health and Fitness Research

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Greatist's chief research officer David Tao. The views expressed here are his.

A few weeks ago, Greatist’s editorial team stumbled upon something truly great. In a roughly seven-minute presentation posted on YouTube, alleged bioengineer Tuur van Balen demonstrated how to make Prozac-laced yogurt using tools and equipment anyone with some cash to burn could purchase on eBay. As a resource constantly trying to bring readers the latest in mental health research, we figured the story was simply too good to pass up. After all, who wouldn’t want to learn how to make their own antidepressant yogurt through a simple process from a world-renowned bioengineer?

There was just one small problem: van Balen isn’t a bioengineer. He’s a designer who shows audiences different possibilities for applying genetic engineering in the social and political realms. And that creamy Prozac he cooked up on stage? Not so fast. When we reached out to van Balen, he called the on-stage production of such a substance “virtually impossible,” his demonstration only serving to show how one might go about bio-hacking bacteria.

Despite his transparency, soon after van Balen’s work hit the Web, media outlets started transforming him from an innovative artist into a cutting-edge scientist producing biological miracles in record time. And just like that, a compelling presentation morphed into a news story beyond the control of its creator and his best intentions.

The Prozac-yogurt debacle illustrates a large — and perhaps growing — problem in the health and fitness space, namely the disconnect between scientific research and the people who cover it. There’s no direct zip line from the ivory tower to the public, and media outlets often tweak and distill stories based more on headline potential than accuracy. Prozac yogurt’s probably not coming to a kitchen table near you — at least not anytime soon — but it sure as heck makes for a clickable headline.

These problems make it hard to use health research to help readers make better choices. The majority of people don’t have time to personally sift through what’s trickling down the academic pipeline. Certainly, there are a number of individuals passionate about the science behind health and fitness who take it upon themselves to look at the headlines — and research processes themselves — with a critical eye. For now, though, these resources remain exceptions rather than the rule, often limited to niche groups scattered across the web and separate from outlets many readers turn to for quick — though not necessarily quality — answers to their questions.

What’s the solution, then? Does this space need a champion to bridge the divide between research and readability, someone who’s not afraid to delve deep into the scientific mumbo-jumbo and come out with what’s truly accurate and relevant? No — it needs thousands of them. It needs writers and editors who look for the most current and accurate information, who engage in dialogue with researchers to improve the quality of health and fitness coverage.

And that’s the role Greatist is trying to promote, a “readers-first” mentality that keeps us accountable as we strive to inspire better choices. After one year of working to create a new, higher-quality type of health and fitness content, we know there’s still plenty of innovating left. Multiple experts approve our articles, and every fact we publish is cited by a PubMed study, but we’re still trying to make our research process even more robust. Sometimes that involves passing up the juicy headlines. It also means admitting when we make mistakes and working to make sure they don’t happen again.

Lasting improvement in health and fitness content won’t happen overnight, nor will it start with just one team. But together we can create changes in this space the same way we try to make better choices in our daily lives. So read carefully, read critically, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to demand better.

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