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Dodgy diet advice shared by Britney Spears, conspiracy theorists and others misses important context

A graphic circulating on Facebook claims fruit and vegetables can treat various health conditions.

The conditions range from the less serious – cold, headache and hangover – to the much more serious and potentially life-threatening: diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.

Under “diabetes”, for example, it lists “carrot, spinach, celery”. For high blood pressure it gives “beet, apple, celery, cucumber, ginger”. And its treatment for asthma is “carrot, spinach, apple, garlic, lemon”.

But the graphic is at best misleading, and provides no useful advice on treating these conditions.

diet_advice_missing_context

No sources, no explanation – see a doctor instead

The graphic gives no evidence for its claims and does not cite any sources. This is already a reason not to follow its advice. As we have written before, if a health claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

And it simply gives a short list of various fruits and vegetables under each condition. It does not say what these will do for the condition – cure it, treat it or prevent it. This important context is missing.

“It is said foods are the best Meds,” one Facebook user said when posting the graphic. (No, medicine is the best medicine.)

Another said: “Please note this is not a cure but simply foods that support the body when dealing with these types of conditions.” They added: “A trusted friend vetted the info but we do not know who to credit as the original source.”

But with any serious health condition, the best advice is to see a doctor.

Advice on antioxidants can be misleading

Africa Check has debunked many similar claims in the past, which often attribute the supposed healing properties of fruit and vegetables to antioxidants.

These are substances with some ability to slow or reverse a type of damage caused by other chemicals called free radicals. As we explained in our factsheet on antioxidants and free radicals, free radicals are necessary for many bodily functions, but can cause damage in large amounts.

A healthy diet should include nutrients with antioxidant properties, but there is no evidence fruit and vegetables treat certain conditions – and certainly not the conditions listed on the graphic.

Headaches, for example, are treated depending on the diagnosis and cause. But while treatments may include things like over-the-counter painkillers, medical experts do not recommend cucumber and kale.

Diabetes is a typically permanent condition in which a person’s body cannot process blood sugar. A healthy diet, along with other healthy behaviours, may lower chances of developing some kinds of diabetes. But specific vegetables (like carrot and spinach) will not prevent it.

Diabetes can be treated with careful monitoring, and medicine including the hormone insulin, which mediates blood sugar. A healthy diet is a recommended part of treating diabetes, but a healthy diet involves eating more than a few specific vegetables.

Asthma, a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus, is another serious and potentially life-threatening condition. Steps can be taken to avoid asthma attacks, but the disease itself can’t be prevented or cured.

Origins unclear, but shared by some unusual, high-profile sources 

The version of the graphic which Africa Check first spotted on Facebook is branded “Natural News”. Despite its innocent sounding name, Natural News is an organisation infamous for spreading and profiting from some of the worst disinformation on the internet.

An in-depth investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a human right nonprofit, found that despite attempts by Facebook to ban the organisation from its platforms, domains linked to the organisation were still being shared hundreds of thousands of times. These were being used to promote “violent and extremist material, as well as health disinformation and conspiracy theories”.

But Natural News may not have been the first to share the graphic. It regularly shares relatively innocent graphics, branded with its name, to drive readers to the more extreme content on its site. The graphic may have been first posted by someone else, with Natural News adding its branding later.

One high-profile example of the graphic being shared came in 2019, when pop star Britney Spears used it in a (since deleted) Instagram video.

As British tabloid the Daily Mail reported, Spears said that the fruit and vegetables shown had helped her manage several health conditions, and maintain weight loss.

The pop star also provided no evidence for the post, and credited it to an Instagram account which has shared other nutritional misinformation.

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