Instagram isn’t the best place to get advice about weight loss.
That may seem like a given, but there’s no denying the powerful allure of models and other social media influencers giving advice or peddling the next wonder weight loss supplement through online platforms.
The average consumer is likely smart enough to avoid the skinny tea scam, but finding high-quality information about diet through blogs and social media can still be difficult.
The problem: Most weight loss influencers have no idea what they’re talking about.
Now a new research recently presented at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Glasgow puts some science behind that conclusion.
“We found that the majority of the blogs could not be considered credible sources of weight management information, as they often presented opinion as fact and failed to meet U.K. nutritional criteria,” said the study’s first author, Christina Sabbagh, MSc, a policy and research assistant at Obesity Action Scotland.
“This is potentially harmful, as these blogs reach such a wide audience,” she said.
Researchers included influencers based on a series of criteria, such as having more than 80,000 followers on social media, “blue tick” verification on two or more social media platforms, and an active weight management blog.
The influencers’ content — things like diet advice and meal plans — was analyzed against credibility factors that included bias, adherence to nutritional criteria, transparency, and use of other resources.
Basically, did the influencer use established knowledge about nutrition and weight loss, and were they forthcoming about where this information came from?
Of the nine influencers included in the study, only one passed the test and was deemed to be giving credible advice.
As for the meal plans from these blogs, researchers looked at 10 recipes and analyzed them for basic nutritional information, including calorie content, sugar, salt, and macro nutrients. Only three of them were within the range of current U.K. health calorie goals.
Additionally, more than half of the influencers presented nutrition claims and opinions as fact without providing evidence-based references.
“I’m not surprised by the results, as there is no degree or approval process for putting up a blog or social media page,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, a licensed, registered dietitian who’s manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio.
“It’s frustrating on two levels,” said Kirkpatrick, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Dietitians go through rigorous schooling and training and understand the complex mechanisms behind digestion and metabolism. We are also often the experts that have to spend precious time during employment debunking myths that patients may have heard on social media.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one influencer in the study who was deemed to be providing credible information was a registered nutritionist with a degree.
Both Kirkpatrick and Sabbagh agree that social media influencers have powerful platforms that can be used for good. However, as this study indicates, more likely than not they may be spreading inaccurate information.
“This misinformation can act to undermine the efforts of those providing evidence-based campaigns,” Sabbagh told Healthline.
She hopes her work has the potential to inform public policy in the future and cut down on the spread of health and weight loss-related information.
“The online world is very difficult to regulate, so perhaps introducing a verification scheme where a blogger can be awarded a badge of credibility to display on their blog so that the public can see it has at least been vetted,” she said.
For now, there are still some ways to identify warning signs for false or misleading information:
- Does the influencer have appropriate qualifications? Check their “about me” section to look for verifiable credentials from accredited institutions.
- Are they transparent with where they get their information (linking to sources or including citations)?
- Are their recommendations based on fact or opinion? Linking to or citing scientific studies is a good indication that they’re using evidence-based information.
- Do they criticize a particular food or food group? Do they recommend a program that primarily involves pills, teas, or other specialized supplements? These can be red flags that their plan isn’t credible.
But the bottom line is that when it comes to weight loss and nutrition influencers, beware.
“Overall, this suggests that weight management blogs run by social media influencers cannot all be recommended as credible resources for weight management,” said Sabbagh.