The internet can be a great place. I love how it allows me to connect with loved ones, colleagues, and follow the every move of celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, who I consider “a friend in my head.” It’s also a platform to learn about almost anything. Who knew that sloths can hold their breath for 40 minutes? Or that Whitney Port says she turned down a one-night-stand with Leonardo DiCaprio in 2009.
Having said that, the internet has its issues. A lot of them. As a registered dietitian, my biggest beef with the internet is that it gives “wellness influencers” free reign. By wellness influencers, I don’t mean registered dietitians or other medical professionals who also happen to have a big following on social media. What I mean is the plethora of people who have no real health or nutrition credentials, yet have a lot to say about your health and the “best” way to live your life.
In this day and age, it’s tough to not conflate a large following with credibility on any topic, including health. When you notice that someone has tens or hundreds of thousands of engaged followers, it’s tough NOT to think “Huh, this person must really know what they’re talking about!” But that’s dangerous.
A quick Youtube search will get you an almost unlimited array of non-credentialed influencers promoting everything from the keto diet to the OMAD diet (which stands for One Meal A Day and is actually a real thing). I’ve seen influencers claim that if you just base your diet around one food—let’s take a potato for example (yes, the potato diet is a real fad)—you will lose weight, avoid heart disease, and cure your diabetes. All in just 10 days!
Some of these claims have been so outrageous that I’ve left 400-word fact checks (and pleas) in comment sections. I’ve urged influencers to do the research and be more responsible with the information they’re promoting throughout their platform. I’ve said that it’s important to know the difference between anecdotal evidence and randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that are published in peer-reviewed journals (the gold standard when making health claims—and even these have their limitations and can’t necessarily be generalized to everyone). But of course it’s more than knowing which data to use. You also have to have the training to be able to sift through the science and draw meaningful conclusions from it. Not just anyone has the foundation required to interpret a study’s findings.
I’m sure that many of you are assuming that only the most gullible or naive internet users fall for this type of extreme misinformation online, but you’re wrong. Some of the influencers who post the most egregiously false information have hundreds of thousands or even over one million followers, often on more than one platform.
More often than not, these influencers are thin, able-bodied and perfectly reflect society’s one-dimensional ideals when it comes to health. And in fact, the most insidious aspect of taking nutrition advice from influencers is this underlying idea: “eat like me and you will look like me.” It’s right there in the word “influencer;” the idea is that if we do what they do, we’ll look like them.
SELF Editor-in-Chief, Carolyn Kylstra, said it best on the Food Heaven Podcast: “Just because someone’s hot, doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.” The unsexy truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription when it comes to health and wellness. Even if we all ate the same exact meal plan, and did the same workouts every day, we would still be different shapes and sizes. When will we be able to accept that?
With all of the misinformation online, it’s hard to know who to trust. Next time you’re watching an influencer’s video with nutrition or health recommendations, ask these five questions before taking their ideas to heart.
1. Is this person a registered dietitian?
If not, it’s unlikely that they have the training required to give personalized, evidence-backed nutrition information or advice. Consider limiting the amount of food-related advice you get from them.
2. Is this individual or platform promoting a specific way of eating as the one and only holy grail?
Or do they acknowledge that a variety of eating patterns can be appropriate? If there is only one way, head for the highway.
3. Do they provide sources for any food-related claims?
One way to tell if the claims someone is making are based on actual science is by looking for sources. I often find that influencers with no background in nutrition science use mostly anecdotal evidence when making claims. Anecdotal evidence typically relies on personal testimony rather than rigorous clinical trials and should not be taken as proof of something.
4. Are they peddling a bunch of products you have to pay for?
Meaning, do you have to add 16 expensive supplements to your smoothie for it to be considered healthy? If so, run. Of course, it’s possible to give bogus nutrition information that’s totally free, just like it’s possible for credentialed experts to give evidence-based nutrition information and also suggest you buy a few things. But if someone on the internet is claiming that you absolutely need certain products to nail the whole nutrition thing, I’d suggest heading in the other direction.
5. Is this person directly or indirectly promoting the “eat like me, look like me” idea?
Most of us are not an acai bowl away from a six-pack. Many of us will never look like these influencers, no matter what we do.
Jessica Jones, R.D.N., C.D.E., is a registered dietitian nutritionist who helps people improve their health while healing their relationship with food. She’s also the cofounder of Food Heaven, an online resource for delicious and nutritious living. To sign up for virtual nutrition coaching with Jessica, visit Jessica Jones Nutrition.