Developing Online Search Skills: The Case of Vegan Nutrition

George M Jacobs, Vegetarian Society (Singapore)

Summary

This paper begins with general suggestions for developing students’ ability to find, evaluate and understand information online. Next, the paper addresses the specific case of finding information on vegan nutrition. Three sources are recommended as quality sources of information on the nutritional needs of people pursuing vegan diets.

 Background

Many students have difficulty searching for information online for at least three reasons (Chu & Law, 2007). First, students may not be aware of how to locate the wide variety on online sources of information (Head, 2013). Second, they may not have the ability to discern the varying quality of information sources (Coiro, 2014). Third, students may have difficulty understanding the materials they find online (Coiro, 2014). The first part of this paper examines each of these three problems students encounter when searching online and suggests solutions. The second and final section of the paper recommends three online sources of information on vegan nutrition. Vegans are vegetarians who strive to eat and otherwise live their lives without using animal products.

Where To Look on the Internet

An initial problem students face in their online searches is knowing where to begin their searches. Recent estimates (Dewey, 2014) put the number of websites at more than one billion, not to mention the many blogs, wikis and other internet resources. How can students find the information they need in this rising sea of options? The next paragraph offers suggestions.

Three online tools make finding information easier. One, many search engines are available, with Google being the most widely used. Google also offers a more specialised search engine, Google Scholar, limited to more academic sites. Two, online databases can be useful. Among the better known academic databases is ProQuest. Additionally, Science Direct is a database specialising in the physical sciences. When using search engines and databases, students should acquaint themselves with the tips provided by each of these tools on how to optimise their use. Three, Wikipedia can be a useful tool, both for understanding background on topics, as well as for finding references for learning more on those topics.

Two old-fashioned but still useful methods can aid online information searches. One, students can consult teachers and others whom they respect. How do these mentors find information online? Two, once one information source is found, that source will often suggest other sources. In turn, those sources will recommend yet more sources.

How To Evaluate Information Found Online

Once students find information online, they too often have difficulty assessing the quality of that information (Coiro, 2014). Some students try to collect information quickly to meet assignment deadlines. Thus, anything relevant to their topic seems okay to them. They take a quantity over quality approach. Also, students incorrectly feel that if something is on the web or in social media, the information is reliable. A related concern stems from students’ inability to differentiate facts from opinion.

The problem of information evaluation indeed poses great difficulty, and not just for students. This difficulty arises for at least three reasons. First, change is a constant. Thus, what we think we know today may be questioned by studies next year, yet supported by other studies the following year. Second, even when statements are supported by research, even research published in reputable journals, there may be flaws and blind spots in that research, or, worse yet, the research may later be found to have been fraudulent. Third, opinion is often divided as to proper ways to collect data and to apply the data to the research questions.

Fortunately, valid procedures have been developed for gaining some clarity when evaluating information found online (Coiro, 2009). In their evaluations, students can learn to seek answers for the following questions.

  1. Who are the authors of the material?
  2. What are the authors’ qualifications, such as academic qualifications, work experience and prior publications?
  3. Do the authors cite research to support their statements?
  4. Do the authors provide references and links to help readers find and evaluate that research?

Another way to make educated guesses about the quality of online information is by looking at websites’ top-level domains (TLDs). Nowadays, a large number of new TLDs have become available. Four of the most common are listed below in no particular order, followed by a brief explanation of each of the four.

  1. .edu: an educational institution, such as a university
  2. .org: often an organisation set up to advocate for a cause, such as the International Vegetarian Union, which advocates vegetarianism
  3. .com: a for-profit commercial organisation, such as Monsanto
  4. .gov: a government organisation, such as the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control

Knowing about the TLD of a website and knowing information about the organisation or people who created and maintain a website provides some insight into possible perspectives to be found on the website. For instance, websites with an ‘.org’ TLD and which are created by vegetarian organisations are likely to trumpet the benefits of plant based foods, while the websites of organisations of meat producers are likely to highlight the nutritional advantages of meat consumption.

How To Understand the Information

After students have gone online and found what seems to be quality information, the next challenge they face is understanding that information. One solution to this problem is ‘narrow reading’ (Schmitt & Carter,  2000), i.e., students read multiple texts in the same area, e.g., nutrition, thereby gradually learning the vocabulary and styles of writing and speaking common to texts in that area. To aid this process of familiarisation with the language features specific to certain topics, students can link with others, including fellow students and working professionals, who share an interest in those topics. Such groupings of people, meeting in person or online, are known as discourse communities (Borg, 2003).

Online dictionaries offer another means of boosting students’ comprehension of what they find online. For instance, the website ‘onelook.com’ provides access to more than 1000 online dictionaries, including specialist science dictionaries. The website is called “onelook”, because after typing a word into the search box, the website lists all the definitions found in the dictionaries in its database. In addition to definitions, some online dictionaries also provide grammar tips, example sentences and audio of the words’ pronunciations.

Three Recommended Online Sources for Information on Vegan Nutrition

This section of the paper recommends three authors who provide online sources of information on vegan nutrition. First, it will be explained why these three authors meet criteria for trustworthiness.

  1. All three state their names and list the qualifications, such as academic qualifications, work experience and publications.
  2. Another index of trustworthiness is that statements made are supported by research, and references are provided to enable readers to find and evaluate that research.
  3. The authors are contactable; indeed, they all have responded to emails from the author of the current paper.
  4. All three resources have a ‘Comments’ section after their blog posts. The discussions in the Comments sections offer further information and a variety of opinions.
  5. The authors of these internet information sources are willing to admit that they were wrong. For instance, one of the recommended authors (Greger, 2014) blogged about the fact that vegan and other health professionals had told the public that meat and other acid producing foods led to bone loss, but that more recent research had established that the situation was actually more complicated.

Jack Norris

The first recommended author of internet based vegan nutrition information is Jack Norris. Norris holds a degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Life University (Marietta, Georgia, USA) and did a dietetic internship at Georgia State University. He created and maintains the Vegan Health website – www.veganhealth.org – and has a blog which can be found at www.jacknorrisRD.com. Additionally, Norris’ publications include Vegan for Life (Norris & Messina, 2011) and Vitamin B12: Are You Getting It? (Norris, 2014).

Several characteristics of Norris’ nutrition work stand out. One, he clearly links his nutrition work with efforts to lessen the suffering that nonhuman animals endure due to the production of animal based foods. Thus, he wants vegans to be healthy as evidence that humans can thrive on humane, plant based diets. Two, Norris wants vegan diets to be doable; therefore, he stresses that being vegan is about doing one’s best and not about being perfect. Three, to encourage vegans to be healthy, Norris is very clear on the need for vegans to have a researched based source of B12, and he issues regular reminders of this. Four, to prepare vegans for negative stories they may hear about veganism, Norris discusses cases of people who were vegan but later returned to eating animals. Last but not least, Norris regularly updates the information on his website.

Related to his work on nutrition, Norris is also executive director of Vegan Outreach, an organisation that reaches out to youth and young adults via a variety of brochures. Every year, Vegan Outreach distributes millions of brochures. Some of the titles of their brochures are Compassionate Choices, Even If You Like Meat, Your Choice and, in Spanish ?Por Que Vegetariano? (Why Vegetarian?). The brochures are all available free online: http://www.veganoutreach.org/catalog/index.html

Virginia Messina

The second recommended author of internet based vegan nutrition information is Virginia (Ginny) Messina. Messina is a Registered Dietician and holds a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA). Her work experience includes serving as Director of Nutrition Services, George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, D.C., USA. Messina’s blog is www.theveganrd.com. Four books that Messina recently co-authored are Vegan for Life (Norris & Messina, 2011), Vegan for Her (Messina & Fields, 2013), Never Too Late to Go Vegan (Adams, Breitman, & Messina, 2014), Even Vegans Die (Adams, Brietman, & Messina, 2017). Additionally, Messina twice co-authored the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position paper on vegetarian diets: http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357

Among the strong points of Messina’s blog is that she refuses to make statements about health unless she believes she has sufficient evidence. For instance (Messina, 2014), she does not claim that all animal based foods are 100% unhealthy: “It’s hard—if you are going to be honest, evidence-based, and unbiased—to make a case again moderate dairy”. Furthermore, she appreciates that to reduce the suffering of our fellow animals, it is necessary to appreciate that differences exist as to what people are willing to do as to their diets: “And while you and I may be content to eat a diet of mostly or exclusively whole plant foods, we need to be smart enough—for the sake of the animals—to realize that everybody else isn’t just like us.”

Michael Greger

The third recommended author of online sources on vegan nutrition is Michael Greger, who is a graduate of the Cornell University School of Agriculture (Ithaca, New York, USA) and the Tufts University School of Medicine (Medford, Massachusetts, USA). Greger is a physician, licensed as a general practitioner specialising in clinical nutrition and a founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. His blog and website are at www.nutritionfacts.org, and he has another website at www.veganmd.org.

Among Greger’s many publications are Carbophobia: The Scary Truth about America’s Low-Carb Craze (Greger, 2005), Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching (Greger, 2006), and How Not To Die (Greger & Stone, 2015). He has appeared on national television in the U.S. and was an expert witness when tv personality Oprah Winfrey was sued for defamation by meat companies.

Greger’s nutritionfacts.org website and blog deserve further explanation. They consist of many hundreds of blog posts, mostly video but also written, and all of the videos have transcripts. Soon, translation will be available in a variety of languages. As with the blogs of Norris and Messina, Greger’s blog is searchable. Every week, Greger posts new blogs, mostly videos. These are short (about 3-5 minutes long) and well-produced.

Conclusion

The purpose of this paper was, first, to raise awareness of how students and others can locate, assess and comprehend online information generally, and, second, to highlight three internet information sources on vegan nutrition. While vegetarianism dates back many thousands of years and is well-established, veganism, a form of vegetarianism in which people attempt to avoid foods and other products from animals, is much newer and less well established. The newness of veganism and its lack of a well known tradition, plus the increasing quantity of nutrition research, including research into vegan diets, means that people attempting diets consisting primarily of plant based foods may feel somewhat lost.

In their search for knowledge on almost any topic, people who are fortunate to be among the almost three billion people with internet access (Dewey, 2014) are likely to turn to the internet for help. People who want to learn about vegan nutrition are no different. The three sources that were described here are only some of the many useful information sources on vegan nutrition available on the internet. For example, the Vegan Society website (www.vegansociety.com) is also useful.

Recent trends suggest that more people, as least in some developed countries (e.g., Gunther, 2013), are moving away from meat and other animal based foods, and more people are concerned about the plight of animals (e.g., European Commission, 2012). These trends may give rise to more interest in vegan nutrition. Thus, health professionals and interested laypeople will increasingly be asked for assistance on how to be healthy on plant based diets. The search strategies outlined above and the three online information sources recommended here may prove useful.

References

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Schmitt, N., & Carter, R. (2000). The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners. TESOL Journal9(1), 4-9. DOI: 10.1002/j.1949-3533.2000.tb00220.x