Don’t believe everything you read

Weight loss information on top Spanish-language websites unreliable, study shows

By Elizabeth Hillaker Downs

hitech senior woman surfing on the kitchen

It can be hard enough to shed unwanted pounds. For Spanish speakers seeking weight loss information online, it could be even harder because of inaccurate and incomplete information on popular Spanish-language weight loss sites, according to an article by researchers at UF Health and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center published recently online in the journal Obesity.

The information on the sites was compared to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and American College of Sports Medicine recommendations, and quality scores ranged from four points for “excellent” to no points for “nothing” on three key domains: nutrition, physical activity and weight-loss-related behavior change. Only 12 percent of the 66 websites the team analyzed scored more than six out of 12 points on the accuracy and completeness of their weight loss content.

In addition, the quality of the sites in Spanish is substantially lower than comparable sites in English, with 23 percent of websites in English scoring more than six out of 12 points on these same domains, according to findings from an earlier study conducted by one member of the UF Health research team, François Modave, Ph.D., an associate professor of health outcomes and policy, and colleagues at Texas Tech University HSC at El Paso.

“The bottom line is that the weight loss information that Spanish speakers in the U.S. are most likely to see is poor,” said Michelle Cardel, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor in the department of health outcomes and policy in the UF College of Medicine. “This is a particularly serious issue given that 42.6 percent of Hispanic adults in the U.S. have obesity and they are the nation’s fastest-growing demographic. Our study reveals one possible contributing factor to these obesity rates: misinformation online.”

About 38 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. report mainly speaking, writing and reading in Spanish, indicating the importance of evaluating Spanish-language websites for the quality and comprehensiveness of their content. To conduct the study, a set of 30 weight-loss queries was generated by native Spanish speakers, based on questions in the previous study done in English.

Since 90 percent of all clicks on search engines have been shown to be on one of the first five nonsponsored links, the research team identified the first five nonsponsored entries for the 30 different weight loss queries in Spanish, ultimately garnering a bank of 66 websites for analysis.

Specifically, the team examined the nutrition-related content for information on healthy eating patterns, balancing energy input and output, and limiting saturated and trans fat, sugar, refined grains and sodium. For physical activity, the team checked for specific recommendations regarding moderate and vigorous activity and muscle strengthening. Finally, they analyzed the content for suggested behavior changes, such as setting weight loss goals, improving diet, increasing physical activity, addressing barriers to change, self-monitoring, and strategizing how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Blogs had the lowest average content score at 2.2 out of 12, and they often pointed to sites that were commercial in nature and provided very low quality information. In addition, 94 percent of the websites included unsubstantiated claims, which the research team defined as any weight loss recommendations that did not align with current evidence-based recommendations. Only 45 percent included reputable references.

The team noted that no websites from the medical, government or university communities ranked within the first five entries of the Spanish-language searches. Websites of this nature provided some of the highest-quality information in the earlier study conducted on weight loss websites in English and comprised 13.5 percent of the websites the earlier team analyzed.

“It is important to note that high-quality information in Spanish is available on the internet — just not within the top-ranked sites, which is where the vast majority of people go for their information,” said Modave, who added that commercial sites may be investing more in search engine optimization since high-quality sites in Spanish start to appear on page three or further in the search engine results.

“To fix this,’’ Modave said, “we recommend that organizations with high-quality information pay attention to search engine optimization. It is not enough to have evidence-based content on your site if most people who need it will never scroll down far enough to see it.”

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