July 26 lynn little

July 25, 2000

Seeking health and nutrition information online

More Americans are going online for information about health and nutrition. This is fueled in part by the explosion of health information available on the Internet. Everything from government and academic Web sites to public forums and chat rooms are available at your fingertips.

Finding information on the Internet, and evaluating it once you find it, can be daunting. The Internet opens a new door to health and nutrition information. Used wisely, it can provide great resources - from abstracts of scientific journals to recipes and support groups.

Sometimes, you'll have a specific address, or URL, for a Web site you want to see. Often, however, you will have to search the Web for relevant sites. This is when search engines come in handy. Search engines "crawl" over the Web, continually cataloging new information and adding it to their databases. AltaVista is one of the largest search engines in terms of pages indexed. Other popular search engines include Yahoo, Excite and Webcrawler. Whichever one is used, the process is the same: Go to the search engine by typing in its URL, for example,, then type in the word or words you're looking for. Narrow the search by using descriptive combinations of words.


Web pages are only part of what's available online. Through them, you often can find other resources. For example, Medline, the most comprehensive database of peer-reviewed studies, can be accessed through the National Institute of Health's home page. Many Web sites offer links to public forums where users can post information, questions and comments.

Listservs and usenets are other resources. A listserv distributes e-mail to everybody on a specific list. To get messages from listservs, you must subscribe to the list, then unsubscribe when you want to stop. Some listservs are open to anyone who wants to sign up, while others have requirements to join. Unless closely monitored, anecdotal information and personal opinions can abound in this type of information exchange.

Making sense of it all

Retrieving information from the 'Net is only the beginning. You also need to make sense of what you've found. Government and academic-sponsored sites generally exist as a service to the public.

Commercial sites generally exist to sell something to the public. Sites aimed at sales are often biased toward the products they're selling.

Here are a few criteria to keep in mind when evaluating the reliability of a health or nutrition site:

Before retrieving information, be clear about your goal. Become an informed Web surfer. Ask yourself, who is the author and what are his credentials? If the author is unknown, is the source a credible organization? Information posted by credible organizations is generally reviewed and validated by other professionals and does not directly endorse a product or service. Is the site trying to sell you something? If so, are unbalanced arguments and sweeping claims made?

If your intention is to meet others with similar interests or questions, then discussion groups, forums and chat rooms may be for you. Remember, this information does not come from professional sources. Discretion is important.

If you're new to the Internet, give yourself time to explore and investigate these resources. Reliable health information, whether from a book, friend or the Internet, should be substantiated by your health-care team. Used appropriately, the Internet can support informed consumerism in making important nutrition and health choices.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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