- Many Americans refer to social media for health information regarding diets and weight loss.
- Knowing how to decipher what is factual and safe from what is not can be difficult.
- Experts debunk four common nutrition myths circulating across social media.
If you find yourself scrolling through social media for ways to kickstart new health routines, you’re not alone. According to data from the online patient community PatientsLikeMe, 11% of Americans surveyed said they refer to social media for health information.
However, while some advice you come across online may seem helpful and trustworthy – and some might even come from doctors, registered dietitians, or other qualified people – often, this isn’t the case.
“[A] lot of times what we see is somebody who did their own weight loss plan or gut cleanse, or cured their own whatever it is, and they try to apply that to everyone…Just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it’ll work for everybody and that’s where it can get really dangerous,” Jen Scheinman, RDN, nutrition affairs manager at Timeline Nutrition, told Healthline. “[They] find intriguing quick fixes that people want to believe, but they aren’t backed by science and can be damaging.”
Diets are often sensationalized on social media to excite people, added Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, associate professor of medicine at Cornell and Chief Medical Officer at Found.
“If it were all unbiased and balanced facts, it would be in a scientific journal and not on social media,” Kumar told Healthline.
While social media can be used as a tool to educate and disseminate information, she added that content “in regards to diets and nutrition might be posted by influencers who don’t always have all the facts, but likely do have some facts.”
Scheinman agreed. She said a lot of diet myths start with a nugget of truth to make them compelling to try.
“That nugget of truth can be exaggerated or misconstrued to then be wise for the population,” she said.
Deciphering between what is factual or not can be difficult. To help ease confusion, we asked health experts to debunk some of the most common nutrition myths being shared on social media.
While keto and low carb eating can induce weight loss, Kumar noted that these eating patterns are not suited for everyone “either because of medical conditions like diabetes that might make severe carbohydrate reduction dangerous or [because] these plans don’t match the biology of an individual (i.e. a different diet would be more efficacious).”
The types of foods that are followed on these diets – particularly the keto diet, which focuses on fat – also causes concern, said Scheinman.
“[What] I start to see people doing is eating lots of cheese and butter and tons of steak or bacon or lunch meats that are highly processed and limiting vegetables and whole grains and other important nutrients, so they get an imbalance in their diet,” she said.
Studies that look at people who live the healthiest and longest lives have found that their diets are sustained on whole grains, beans, and legumes, she noted.
“Specifically beans and legumes are correlated with people living longer, so when you cut these foods out [you have to wonder] what is happening in terms of health,” said Scheinman.
Additionally, sticking to a keto or low carb diet long-term is difficult, and when people start including carbohydrates back into their diet, Scheinman said they don’t do so in a healthy way.
“[They’re] not focusing on the whole grains, the fruits, and starchy vegetables. They’re starting to go back to those simple carbohydrates like white bread and sugar and white pasta, and they put all the weight back on and then some, so it becomes this cyclical yoyo type of experience,” she said.
Caffeine is a stimulant that makes the brain feel more alert but does not technically provide the body with nourishment or energy, said Kumar. This is because caffeine doesn’t lead to cellular production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the organic compound that provides energy to the body.
“We have these areas of the brain that make us sleepy and caffeine helps to quiet those neuropathways down. It’s really masking our low-energy crisis by putting a band-aid on the solution,” explained Scheinman.
Consuming caffeine can also lead to dependence, she said. For instance, you might rely on it in the morning and eventually later in the day. However, when you drink caffeine later in the day, it can affect your sleep, and when you don’t sleep well, you wake up turning to caffeine yet again. From there, the cycle continues.
The solution for upping energy is already in the body, Scheinman noted.
“We have these energy-producing organelles inside every cell called mitochondria, and when we nourish them and take care of them [with] healthy lifestyle behaviors — like healthy diet, good sleep, stress management — our bodies produce energy that we need,” she said.
While some celebrities have been vocal about the weight loss they achieved with prescription anti-obesity medications, Kumar said these injectables were only studied in patients with obesity or diabetes.
“There are known adverse effects, mostly gastrointestinal side effects, but we really don’t know the long-term effects of recreational use to just lose a few pounds in the absence of metabolic disease,” she said.
Also, as soon as the shots are stopped, Scheinman said weight gain can occur if eating and lifestyle habits haven’t changed.
“There are medications that can be used for weight loss and so [these injections] could be an indication that comes out in the future, but right now it’s only for obesity and for those with diabetes,” she said.
Almost none of the cleanses or detox diets today are proven to be effective on short or long-term metabolic health or cardiovascular risk, said Kumar.
“A detox might make some feel less bloated in the short term, but these results don’t last and might even lead to rebound water retention or constipation,” she said.
While there is some truth to the notion that there are more toxins in the world and that people breathe in more pollution, eat more sugar and junk food, and therefore need to rid these from the body, Scheinman said the body already naturally eliminates toxic substances.
“[The] truth is that our body has a very complex process that is detoxifying us every day — in our liver, kidneys, digestive system, and colon — all of this is how our body gets rid of toxins,” she said.
To aid the body in these processes, Scheinman said people can focus on healthy nutrition, quality sleep, and limiting exposure to environmental toxins when possible.
In terms of risks associated with cleanses and detoxes, she noted that food-based detox programs that suggest things like consuming fruit and vegetable smoothies or a vegan diet for a limited time are most likely harmless.
However, if supplements are included in these programs, they could be dangerous because the supplements “may or may not be regulated and we’re not clear what’s in them.”
Psychological harm is another concern, according to Scheinman. The push for cleanses and to detox often comes after the holidays and with the notion that you can eat what you want until January 1 and then detox.
“[This] promotes an unhealthy relationship with food and that you need to clean your body or punish your body for what you did to it on an enjoyable eating spree,” she said.
While trends related to diets, nutrition, and cleansing the body can lead to weight loss or feeling better short-term, Kumar said they are difficult to adhere to long term.
“Moderation and consistency are better long-term strategies. If someone does choose to embark on a trend or fad diet, there should be a plan to transition to some more moderate approach after,” she said.