Platforms like Tik Tok, Facebook, and Instagram are now used for more than just sharing daily events as users turn to social media for advice on exercise, health, nutrition, and more. But it’s not experts they’re listening to. In fact, many of the most popular food and health accounts are run by influencers with no qualifications in the health or nutrition fields. So how can we tell good advice from potentially harmful promotions?
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Food Trends on Social Media
Social media is a space for finding trends: music, videos, life hacks, fashion, food. On Instagram, there are over 3 million posts containing #avocado, 1.7 million with #kale, and over 1 million with #quinoa. Just a few years ago, we had never even heard of some of these, let alone labeled them as healthy, trendy, or superfoods.
Pinterest’s “food and drink” category has long been a hotspot for millions of popular recipes, videos, and photos. Facebook and Twitter, of course, contribute their fair share as well, escalating the White Claw viral craze in 2019 that led to a national shortage, and also the Twitter feud between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A.
More recently, the feta pasta recipe craze on Tik Tok led to empty feta shelves at grocery stores. And these are just a couple of examples that demonstrate the power of social media on our food distribution systems.
Now, if social media can do all this with food, imagine what they can do to our minds. With an overabundance of information on nutrition, health, and food all in one place displayed in fun and memorable ways, it’s no surprise that more people are getting their health information from social media than ever before.
Viral Nutritional (Mis)information
What’s worrisome is that social media can also spread information on nutrition just as fast as it causes disruptions in the food supply chain. I noticed it first-hand when I couldn’t find feta at my local supermarket during the height of the TikTok’s pasta craze.
Since the start of COVID-19, many users have been taking to Tik Tok to share what they eat and why and encourage others to do the same. For example, keto and low-carb are two huge trends on social media right now. Eating in a calorie deficit, meaning eating fewer calories than what you’re burning off in a given day, is another.
Almost every other video I see in my feed pertains to one of these categories (I take partial blame because clearly, the algorithm knows what videos I stay on). And while I know my body needs both carbs and calories, some people don’t understand that, and they could easily take to the wrong diet.
Many registered nutritionists and dietitians also have accounts on these platforms, intending to inform users of what’s true and not. One account, @NutritionalSarah, drives home the research behind a well-balanced diet and even answers questions her followers have on food. She follows more of an intuitive-eating diet, meaning she feeds her body what it wants without counting calories or macro and micro-nutrients.
Is This Filling the Education Gap?
A report released in July 2020 from Tufts University’s Federal Nutrition Research Advisory Group said that one of the reasons we are facing a health crisis in America is because there’s a lack of education on nutrition. There are two reasons for this. First, there are so many diet trends popping up that it’s hard to keep track of what’s right and wrong. Should I start Keto or Paleo? Should I start eating vegan? Should I only eat plant-based? The list goes on and on. Second, there’s no governing unit at the federal level to oversee what research is being done and how to get the science to consumers.
Experts at Mintel say that health was the top priority of many Americans in 2020. It led to an increase in demand for nutritious food and drinks as many wanted to strengthen their immune systems in the wake of COVID-19. And, Mintel states, the demand for educational food facts is predicted to continue growing over the next couple of years.
Since the beginning of Covid, many of us actively seek out legitimate health information to increase overall health and well-being during this stressful time. But how can we be sure our sources of information and inspiration are valid, and not just fluff or, even worse, flat-out dangerous to our health?
Many of the people online who influence our diets and the foods we eat are not nutritionists or doctors. Social media platforms, especially Instagram and Tik Tok, are dominated by celebrity influencers or just attractive people who steer others toward specific trends, foods, clothes, and more.
These influencers post more “nutrition” information than ever before, including promoting specific diets, foods, and drinks to their followers without providing fact-based information. Many of them are paid by partners and sponsors to post positively about products. For example, the Kardashians are paid by Fit Tea to say they drink the tea every day to achieve their desired figure.
But sometimes nutrition misinformation is not entirely the influencer’s fault. Their followers crave a role model to follow, especially for what they eat every day. Are you plant-based? Do you consume dairy? And should I follow the same diet?
As we learned from Jack Bobo, our brain has a strong tendency to take in selective evidence to confirm our existing beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. Also, we are bombarded with information that is both confusing and fearful. Jack Bobo also points out that when it comes time to make a decision, our brain is in overload and takes the easiest path possible to decide.
Especially for those who are easily influenced, copying others on social media is the same as mimicking whatever the popular girl did in school. Just as we thought she had it all figured out, we believe the same of influencers. Finally, it’s hard to know the difference between someone who studied the subject and someone who did not.
Examining Influencers in the Nutrition Realm
Here are some of the internet’s most popular influencers-turned-nutritionists:
When perusing your next social media feed that may or may not have one of these influencers, practice good research skills to avoid falling down a hole of social media information. Want some tips to help on your fact-finding journey? Scroll further down…
- Janelle Rohner – Janelle is both Instagram and Tik Tok-famous, with over 4 million followers. At first, she was your one-stop shop for all things keto. But now, she is gaining fame through much more. Recently, she’s promoted swapping every carb with bell peppers. And she also eats cucumbers dipped in Stevia instead of watermelon.
- The Kardashians – I know we already mentioned them before, but it’s worth doing so again because they’re paid to promote many different “nutrition” remedies. Not only were they paid to sell Fit Tea, promising to make women skinny by just drinking a cup a day, but they also endorsed “diet lollipops” that stopped you from being hungry.
- Gwyneth Paltrow – Gwyneth Paltrow has been on everyone’s radars the last few years. As the creator of GOOP and a well-known celebrity, it’s no surprise that she’s come forward as an active nutrition influencer online, as well. She promoted “intuitive fasting”, two diet methods that totally contradict each other. Intuitive eating is about listening to your body when it tells you you’re hungry by promoting mindfulness, while intermittent fasting requires consuming your daily caloric intake within a specified amount of time. For example, consuming your meals within eight hours during the day.
- Katie Price – Katie Price gained her fame from both reality TV and modeling. She faced backlash for similar reasons to Kim Kardashian. Price promoted an appetite suppressant on her Instagram page to over 2 million followers. The advertisement was for a weight-loss shot by BoomBod.
- Miranda Kerr – Miranda Kerr, Victoria’s Secret model and Founder & CEO of KORA Organics, has over 12 million followers on Instagram. She was one of the biggest promoters of the celery juice cleanse. The cleanse claimed to transform your health in just one week by drinking 16 ounces of raw celery juice every morning on an empty stomach.
Navigating Nutrition Advice for Credible Sources
If something sounds too good to be true (“just buy my product and the weight will melt off!”) or counter-intuitive, it’s time to dig deeper. The first step is to see if any peer-reviewed studies back what you heard. This can be done easily by going to Google Scholar and typing in a topic. The best studies are peer-reviewed and cited multiple times by others.
You can also find credible information on university websites, for example, Harvard Health. You can check to see if the person has any partnerships or sponsors, meaning they may be paid for promoting specific products. For more tips on how to decipher good science from bad, click here.
And finally, to find out what works best for you, please talk to your doctor before making any significant dietary changes.
The Bottom Line
Social media has always been powerful, but it seems to gain more momentum by the day. What’s most important is always to take what you see online with a grain of salt. Do your research and talk to your doctor before following any trendy diets or fads. And remember: the most important thing is to eat a well-balanced diet with lots of veggies.