This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.
In recent years, there has been a huge shift in how people are seeking health related information. Nowadays, many people go straight to social media when looking for nutrition advice; particularly with TikTok quickly becoming the new go-to search engine to influencers dishing out dietary advice.
On the surface, it may seem positive to have access to all this information at our fingertips 24/7. However, in a world where anyone can pick up their phone, create an account, and share their opinions as facts, the lack of regulations or need for evidence begin to pose serious risks.
This article will cover the downsides to taking nutrition advice from social media as well as tips on how to find reliable information online.
Current Landscape of Nutrition Advice on Social Media
According to a study on health influencer marketing by Sortlist, a communications agency, a staggering 47.6% of users surveyed turn to social media for their primary source of health information (1).
We’ve all experienced it – scrolling through our feeds, bombarded with nutrition tips from every corner. Influencers, both celebrity and niche, flaunt their dietary choices and endorse an array of products, adding to the whirlwind of sensationalised and misleading claims about health and nutrition. From promises of ‘de-bloating’ with greens powders to fixations on seed oils and obsessive blood sugar control, the barrage of information is often relentless and it’s difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.
There is of course some credible and helpful nutrition advice on social media, and there can be a great sense of community. But you need to keep your wits about you as you navigate this.
There are sadly some extreme cases like that of Zhanna Samsonova, a vegan influencer who tragically died from starvation and exhaustion after following a raw vegan diet for 4 years. Whilst we don’t know the full story, it’s evident that blindly following unverified nutritional advice on the internet can lead to serious consequences.
Understanding the Pitfalls
Whilst social media provides us with the opportunity to be more well-informed than ever, with a topic as complicated and nuanced as nutrition, this isn’t always a good thing. Unfortunately, we live in a superficial age where societal aesthetics often grant unqualified individuals a free pass to give out nutrition advice.
To make things even more confusing, the title ‘nutritionist’ isn’t a protected title.
This means anyone can complete a brief online course, obtain a certificate and brandish themselves as a nutritionist without substantial knowledge of training. This lack of regulations and the blurred lines between user-generated content and content from qualified professionals is the real crux of the issue.
For example, the term ‘evidence-based’ is often casually thrown around on social media, yet with minimal platform regulations, who truly verifies these claims? Simply copying and pasting links to multiple nutrition journals doesn’t automatically mean something is evidence-based. Studies and clinical trials in nutrition often come with significant limitations, meaning the results need to be critically analysed and often can’t be applied to the general population. Additionally, you also come across those who base their advice solely on personal anecdotes, advocating the belief that “what worked for me will work for everyone else.”, which is almost never the case.
With all of this unregulated information so easily available, knowing what to eat has very quickly become a confusing headache. One moment fasting is hailed, the next it’s deemed as bad for our hormonal health. We’re told not to consume foods with ingredients we can’t pronounce, yet those same voices are promoting processed products like Huel. It’s unsurprising that a lot of us are so unsure when it comes to nutrition with the sheer amount of conflicting information.
In fact, one study on the use of social media for nutrition information revealed that over three quarters of university students struggled to determine the accuracy of nutrition information online (2).
Finding Reliable Information Online
It might seem like finding reliable nutrition information on social media is like finding a needle in a haystack, but here are some tips to help you distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources:
Who is the Content Creator?
Your first check should be to look at who the content creator is.
Look for qualifications such as ANutr (Registered Associate Nutritionist), RNutr (Registered Nutritionist) or RD (Registered Dietitian) in the UK, which indicate adherence to regulated standards of evidence-based practice.
You may also want to do a quick Google search to look for experience and try to gauge credibility from that. For example, have they had work published before or given comments to reputable media outlets, or do they just have a large following?
Another thing to be mindful of when taking advice from content creators is that not all medical professionals are nutrition professionals.
Doctors are often mistakenly blindly trusted when it comes to nutrition. However, their expertise may not necessarily encompass providing comprehensive dietary advice due to the limited nutrition training within the medical field.
Spotting Red Flags
Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice there are lots of red flags and giveaways that will help you steer clear of bad advice.
For example, you should be wary of any absolute claims promising miraculous cures or fixes to certain problems. Nutrition is very rarely black and white, so absolutes are likely to be untrue.
You should also avoid advice from anyone advocating extreme solutions, like eliminating foods or entire food groups. The foundation of most evidence-based nutrition advice rests upon advocating for a balanced diet, ensuring intake from all food groups to ensure we get all of the essential nutrients for optimal health.
Lastly, always exercise caution with those who excessively promote supplements, especially if they are claiming they will fix certain problems. It is very likely that these individuals are either being paid by the supplement brand, or they make a commission from selling the product to their followers.
Navigating nutrition advice on social media is a double-edged sword. It offers a wealth of easily accessible information, but it comes with a lot of potential risks. The allure of quick fixes and the amount of conflicting claims means we need to view everything through a cautious lens.
The main thing to takeaway from this is that if you are looking for specific nutrition advice, always seek guidance from qualified nutrition professionals whose expertise is always evidence-based.
- Health Influencer Marketing: 20% trust influencers over specialists (2023) Data Hub. Available at: https://www.sortlist.com/datahub/reports/the-power-of-influencers/ (Accessed: 06 January 2024).
- Kreft, M. et al. (2023) ‘The use of social media as a source of nutrition information’, South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 36(4), pp. 162–168. doi:10.1080/16070658.2023.2175518.