By: Kenneth A., LWDI Intern
Health Influencers in Social Media
If one were to ask the average person, “Where do you get most of your nutrition information?”, I’m sure many of the responses would be one of the following:
- Social Media platforms, such as Instagram, TikTok, or other
- Family and friends
- Personal trainers or other health “certified” individuals
However, when have you ever asked someone this question, and they responded, “Oh, I get all of my evidence-based health information from a Registered Dietitian.” Chances are, not a single person you have ever talked to will give you this response. Unfortunately, it seems like the social media craze and the social media “influencers” are doing everything they can to sell their products, sell their so-called “meal plans,” and are easily taking over the amount of nutrition information that is being spread to most of society (and the downside is, much of the information that they are posting on their social media is not evidenced-based, false, and is usually only done to make a quick buck).
According to an article in Medical News Today, The phrase “health misinformation” refers to any health-related claim under the assumption of truth that is false based on current scientific consensus. (1) The amount of growing concern among health professionals, especially Registered Dietitians, is increasing as more and more people are falling for the false information that is being passed around on social media. Just like the news today, many of the health influencers tend to put a “spin” on their information in order to make it sound more appealing to the average individual (by the way, have you heard of the “chlorophyll” craze that is making its way around TikTok?). They claim that if you purchase their product, it will solve all of your health and gut issues (insert name of pill or powder here).
One of the biggest issues with these individuals is that they have absolutely no prior education in regards to nutrition and health, such as a degree in nutrition, or credentials such as an RDN. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the term “Registered Dietitian” is a protected title allowed only to those who have completed and finished the coursework, internship, and national board exam. However, the term “Nutritionist” is an unprotected title that can be freely used in many states, with no prior education or credentials required. In essence, anyone is free to call themselves a “nutritionist,” and this can cause lots of confusion to people in regards to differentiating a proper Registered Dietitian to other “health influencers.”
Weight Loss & Social Media
One of the biggest issues with social media today is how society constantly pushes what is the “ideal” figure or body image for people. If one were to do a simple search on Instagram, you wouldn’t even have to look past 2 or 3 fitness “influencers” or Instagram health/fitness individuals to see that this case is true. Social media indefinitely pushes people to “lose weight,” to “be thin,” and to do whatever it takes to “lose fat.” The problem is this – just like what was previously mentioned, most of these social media influencers are not even credentialed or qualified to be giving this (shall we say, dangerous) advice to people.
Have you ever seen the content on social media influencers posting their “What-I-Eat-In-A-Day” videos? These types of videos could not be further misleading from the truth, as absolutely no one has the time to prepare five to six Instagram-worthy meals every single day, or else you would not be doing anything except meal prepping almost every hour of your life (examples include their extravagantly-prepared fancy fruits, avocado toasts that contain about 20 different ingredients, and their outrageously expensive seafood/steak dinners). According to an article written in PubMed, “The authors take a look at how social media is influencing diabetes with particular focus on weight perception, weight management and eating behaviours. The authors explore the concept of how the advertising of Size 0 models and photo-shopping of images which are easily available online and via social media is causing an increase in the number of young people with distorted body images. This has led to an increased number of people resorting to sometimes drastic weight loss programs.” (2)
With more and more influencers looking to promote their image and products in order to simply make a profit, the more dangerous social media health/nutrition information has become.
What can we do to respond?
As current and future Registered Dietitians, it can be a challenge to respond and attempt to lure people away from false nutrition information on social media. How is it possible to call out someone who is making false claims, when they have more than 10,000 followers or more on their Instagram or TikTok? Responding to misinformation is challenging for many reasons. For example, psychological factors, including emotions and cognitive biases, may render straightforward efforts to counter misinformation by providing accurate information ineffective. (3)
As health professionals, the best thing we can do is to provide people with sound, evidence-based nutrition information. When someone comes up to us and asks us about a specific nutrition topic or question, we need to clearly communicate what research shows, not what our personal beliefs or opinions are. This will help prove to people that we have their best interest in mind and want to do what it takes to truly help to optimize their health, not give them a runaround in order to make a quick buck that social media influencers are currently trying to do. If people are influenced by the presented misinformation in these sources, they can make harmful decisions about their health. (4)
Viral information has become a tremendous threat to overall public health. We must find even more ways to combat the social media health craze, and put a stop to the spread of false nutrition information. Public health organizations need to improve their social media presence to help Internet users find accurate health information.(5) Unfortunately, the internet and social media will continue to exist and only get bigger, and along with that, the amount of false information regarding nutrition and health with it. As long as we truly care about our clients and patients, we must do our roles as Registered Dietitians to help them live fuller, more meaningful lives, and that includes helping them find better health information.
- “Why do some people believe health misinformation?” Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/why-do-some-people-believe-health-misinformation
- Das L, Mohan R, Makaya T. The bid to lose weight: impact of social media on weight perceptions, weight control and diabetes. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2014;10(5):291-7. doi: 10.2174/1573399810666141010112542. PMID: 25311196. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25311196/
- Sylvia Chou, W. Y., Gaysynsky, A., & Cappella, J. N. (2020). Where We Go From Here: Health Misinformation on Social Media. American journal of public health, 110(S3), S273–S275. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305905
- “Health Misinformation in Search and Social Media” ACM Digital Library. Retrieved from: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3079452.3079483
- “Containing health myths in the age of viral misinformation” CMAJ. Retrieved from: https://www.cmaj.ca/content/190/19/E578.short