How to Tell Real Nutrition Advice from Fad Diets

Nutrition has become a hot topic of discussion across virtually all social media platforms.

In fact, these days it seems nearly impossible to open any social media app without seeing sponsored content from influencers touting a new supplement, diet program, or workout regimen that often sounds too good to be true.

Though it can definitely be tricky to distinguish between the facts and the “fake news” out there, knowing what to look for can make it much easier.

This article will take a closer look at the risks and dangers of some common social media fads and a few steps you can take to weed out the bad advice.

In recent years, diet and nutrition seem to have taken center stage on many social media platforms.

From new supplements and diets to cleanses, recipes, workout routines, and “what I eat in a day” videos, there’s more focus on food, health, and nutrition than ever before.

However, much of this content seems to come from individuals who may not be completely qualified to dole out nutrition advice, including celebrities and online influencers.

One study analyzed about 1.2 million tweets over a 16-month period and found that discourse on diet and nutrition was largely dominated by non-health professionals (1).

Another study presented at the European Congress on Obesity found that only one of the nine most popular weight loss influencers in the United Kingdom provided trustworthy, credible nutrition advice (2).

Though this may seem alarming, keep in mind that not all information on the internet is harmful and that a variety of reputable resources can provide accurate, evidence-based advice to help you learn more about your health.

However, determining which sources are trustworthy and reliable can be challenging, especially if you’re not sure what to look for and what to avoid.

Though some stories, posts, or videos may seem innocent enough, many of the fad diets and supplements popping up on social media can have serious consequences.

For example, officials from the U.K. National Health Service (NHS) recently urged Instagram to crack down on accounts promoting and selling Apetamin, an appetite stimulant often touted by influencers for its ability to enhance curves (3, 4).

According to the NHS, no action was taken against the dozens of social media accounts that were illegally selling the drug, which is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and has been linked to many severe side effects, including liver toxicity (3, 4).

Online influencers also often promote “detox teas,” which they claim can help boost metabolism, enhance fat-burning, or remove harmful toxins from your body.

In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint with a popular “detox” tea marketer, stating that the company made various health claims that were not backed by evidence, such as that their detox pack could help fight cancer or unclog arteries (5).

Furthermore, the FTC sent out warning letters to 10 influencers who didn’t adequately disclose that they were being paid for promoting the product (6).

Besides making unrealistic health claims, these types of products can have serious side effects and may even be dangerous.

For instance, one case report detailed the treatment of a 51-year-old woman who experienced severe hyponatremia — low levels of sodium in the blood — after using an over-the-counter “detox” tea product (7).

Similarly, a 60-year-old woman experienced acute liver failure — plus a range of symptoms like jaundice, weakness, and worsening mental status — after drinking a “detox” tea three times daily for 2 weeks (8).

Restrictive diets can promote disordered eating and mental health challenges

In addition to supplements, restrictive fad diets and cleanses have been heavily promoted on social media.

Not only can these programs increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies and other health problems, but they may also negatively affect mental health while fostering an unhealthy relationship with food (9, 10, 11).

In fact, content from many popular creators tends to glamorize eating disorders, dangerous diets, and other unhealthy habits such as extended fasting, taking questionable supplements, or adopting extreme workout regimens in order to lose weight quickly for an event.

For example, Kim Kardashian recently made headlines after saying that she lost a concerning amount of weight in a short time to fit into a dress originally worn by Marilyn Monroe for the Met Gala, sending a dangerous message to millions of people (12).

Kardashian’s alleged rate of weight loss was much faster than the rate recommended by most professionals: 1/2 pound to 2 pounds per week (13).

Plus, losing weight for a specific event is symbolic of diet culture and the pressure to prioritize aesthetic thinness over whole body health.

In the past, celebrities such as Kardashian have also been called out for editing their pictures on social media, fostering unrealistic standards of beauty.

Furthermore, many social media trends — such as the “what I eat in a day” videos all over TikTok — can set unrealistic expectations, promote diet culture, and perpetuate an unhealthy obsession with “clean” eating, especially in young people.

Not all nutrition information on the internet is trustworthy and reliable. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you distinguish between good and bad advice online.

Check for credentials

Instead of trusting social media influencers who promote supplements or weight loss products, it’s best to get your nutrition advice straight from professionals with education, experience, and training.

For example, registered dietitians must earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, complete a dietetic internship or coordinated program with supervised nutrition practice, and pass a written exam (14).

On the other hand, formal training is not required for nutritionists in many states, meaning that anyone can use this title, regardless of their experience or education (15).

Besides registered dietitians, physicians are also a valuable source for credible health advice, while certified personal trainers can provide more detailed information on fitness and exercise.

Social media nutrition advice may seem appealing because it’s free. However, working with a qualified professional doesn’t need to be pricey.

Many health professionals, including registered dietitians, accept health insurance and Medicare or can adjust fees based on a sliding scale as needed to help make their services more affordable.

Steer clear of sponsored content

According to the FTC, social media influencers are required to disclose any financial or personal relationships with a brand when endorsing products (16).

This requirement can make it much easier to determine when someone is making a genuine recommendation about a product, diet, or supplement that they actually use, as opposed to being paid for their endorsement.

Generally, it’s best to exercise caution when sponsored content pops up in your feed.

If you’re interested in trying or learning more about a product that someone is endorsing, be sure to look at reviews from real customers or healthcare professionals to try and find out whether the product is credible and safe.

Beware of unrealistic claims

Many diet products and supplements are backed by claims that may sound too good to be true — and that’s often because they are.

Diets, pills, or other products that claim to help you lose large amounts of weight quickly should be avoided at all costs.

In fact, weight loss supplements and crash diets have both been linked to a long list of harmful effects on health and are unlikely to result in long-term, sustainable weight loss (17, 18).

Look for terms like “cure,” “quick fix,” or “instant results” and be wary of health claims that sound unrealistic, unsustainable, or unhealthy.

Avoid restrictive diets

Many popular diet programs are highly restrictive and often eliminate nutritious ingredients or entire food groups.

Some companies peddle these fad diets in an attempt to profit off consumers who are looking for an easy way to lose weight or improve their health.

However, in addition to being ineffective in the long run, crash diets can have some serious consequences for health and may increase the risk of disordered eating behaviors (10, 18).

Avoiding overly restrictive diets and enjoying your favorite foods in moderation as part of a nutritious, well-rounded eating pattern is a much better approach to promote weight loss and overall health.

Learn more about why “fad diets” like these don’t work — and how they can cause harm — in this article.

With more and more buzz building up in the health, wellness, and nutrition spheres, it’s important to start being more selective about where you get your information.

Though it may seem harmless and easy to scroll past them, many of the products and fads promoted on social media platforms can have serious effects on health.

Be sure to get your information from credible sources, steer clear of sponsored content, and avoid any restrictive diets or products that seem too good to be true.

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