Jun 12, 2024
Three ways to identify nutritional misinformation on social media
Tamika Watts, MS, RD, LD

With every swipe and scroll there is a new diet trend, miracle supplement, or fitness influencer promising the secret to peak performance and gains. At the height of false internet claims, sports dietitians have first-hand experience working with athletes attempting to make informed dietary decisions.

Read on for a sports dietitian’s top three things to look for in properly identifying misinformation on social media.

1. Credibility

minsinformationBefore all else, it is imperative to understand the difference between a registered dietitian and a nutritionist. Registered dietitians are credentialed practitioners who are trained nutrition experts. They have completed specific educational requirements, passed a national exam, must maintain 75 hours of continuing education every five years, and must maintain licensure in their state. On the other hand, there is no specific standardized meaning for “nutritionist,” meaning anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.

A recent popular trend on social media involved influencers sharing their weekly grocery haul with followers and using hashtags like #WhatIEatInADay. While these videos may be enticing to watch as they often function as meal-prep inspiration, they can be super harmful as they perpetuate this belief that there is this one-size-fits-all approach to eating. The person presents what they eat in a day, and the assumption is that they eat like that every day. Many of these videos inflict fear around food, which can promote unhealthy eating patterns to a vulnerable audience. Perhaps the most concerning part of this trend was that almost all of the nutrition advice was provided by people who had no credentials or qualifications in the field of nutrition. By prioritizing content from credible sources and qualified nutrition experts, you can mitigate the risk of being misled by inaccurate nutrition information.

2. Scientific Backing

Just as you would not implement a new training program without consulting the latest evidence-based research, it is not advised to seek out nutrition advice without a solid foundation of evidence to support it. Scientific backing on social media can be hard to find. A 2024 study, entitled “#Fail: The quality and accuracy of nutrition-related information by influential Australian Instagram accounts,” looked at the quality and accuracy of nutrition influencer Instagram posts and found that almost 94% of 676 posts were poor or mediocre quality. These lacked the factors that high-quality posts had: citations, use of appropriate evidence, mention of risks and benefits, and suggestions for the reader to first consult with their healthcare providers before trying anything mentioned in the posts.

Reliable sources of nutrition information must cite peer-reviewed research studies or refer to established scientific consensus to substantiate their claims. If posted nutrition claims lack transparent scientific support, they should be approached with skepticism. For example, an unsupported claim often seen is, “Eating only organic foods prevents chronic diseases.” However, a systematic review found no significant difference in health outcomes between organic and conventional foods. While organic foods may offer some benefits, such as reduced pesticide exposure, claiming that they can prevent all chronic diseases is unsubstantiated. If a claim sounds extreme or too good to be true, it most likely is and should be challenged.

3. Bias and Red Flags

Picture this—you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed and you come across a post promising to help you gain ten pounds of muscle in a week with a special blend of superfoods. Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it probably is. You know that building muscle and strength takes time, dedication, and a solid performance and nutrition plan founded in science—not a magical concoction. So that should go up as a red flag the next time you are scrolling through social media as misleading nutrition information often relies on exaggerated claims, sensationalist language, and promises of quick fixes to lure you in.

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A 2022 study, entitled “Nutrition-Related Content on Instagram in the U.S.,” analyzed nutrition content in Instagram posts and showed that of 210 posts, 91.4% were just promoting a product or brand, and only 14.3% had any scientific evidence on the post. It is almost impossible to scroll social media without seeing sponsored posts, which should contain clear disclosures, promoting commercial interests over unbiased nutrition advice. Posts on supplements are of the lowest quality and are most likely to contain inaccuracies. Oftentimes, athletes see these types of posts and purchase a supplement simply because their favorite influencer swears by it. They forget to question if the influencer is endorsing it because the product works and they understand its evidence, or if they are trying to make a quick buck. If you have the resources available to you, it is recommended that you advise the athlete to consult with a sports dietitian. And remember, supplements are very loosely regulated and supplement manufacturers do not have to prove safety, effectiveness, and potency.

While social media can be a valuable and accessible tool for sharing knowledge and inspiration, you must approach it with a critical eye. By using this checklist of the top three ways to identify misinformation on social media, you will be better equipped to help your athletes navigate what is fact versus fiction when it comes to nutrition information on social media.

Written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org.

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