Nutrition Under the Influence

Examining Social Media’s Role in Influencing Health Habits

Under the Influence: Health & Social Media

If technology were a bar and social media were an alcoholic beverage, the combination would definitely produce a spiked party punch. Not just any punch, but the kind of punch you might find at a fraternity party, an improvised combination of available grain-alcohol and a sugary sweet mixer to make everything easier going down.

Not familiar with this college party drink? It has historical ties to WWII. And let’s just say a little goes a long way. If you aren’t careful with responsible drinking practices, you could be in a world of hurt the next morning. A terrible analogy for social media? Maybe, but I would argue that just like the party beverage, it doesn’t take much for everyone to be “under the influence” of the lure of social media and the information and misinformation that is spread on these platforms.

The majority of Americans have already had a serving or two from the social media punch bowl. Pew Research found that about 72% of Americans use social media in 2021 compared to the only 5% that used it in 2005. It’s not just the use of social media that has increased, but the actual time spent engaging with these various platforms—often daily and multiple times a day.

According to data from statista, the average daily time spent on social media in the U.S. was about two hours and eight minutes. This is time that could be spent preparing a healthy meal, engaging in some form of physical activity or calling a friend. Instead we stare at our screens scrolling (only for a minute!), then look up and realize that 30 minutes of our precious lives just happened.

We have access to information constantly and are digitally fed it by a complex algorithm curated specifically for each of us. Yet are these curated feeds providing accurate information, especially on nutrition, wellness and health? Who do you follow? What food “truth” are you being sold? The ever-changing nature of nutrition science along with data overload makes the information often overwhelming; that’s without even considering the outside influences of politics or the latest food documentary. The conundrum of where to get reliable information was already muddled prior to the introduction of social media. Now? It takes some real effort and even a little research to go beyond the feed and find the answers for yourself.

Fake news might have recently become popularized in our vocabulary but misinformation about food and wellness isn’t new. As a registered dietitian, I’m very familiar with the myriad of information available about food and our health. Debunking long-held or even new misperceptions isn’t easy. It takes relationship- building, mutual respect and evidenced-based resources.

I debunk many common misperceptions with clients. This includes what those newly diagnosed with diabetes are permitted to eat. Fruit is often demonized and many people think they have to swear off carrots (“full of sugar”). Guess what? Fruit and even carrots can be part of a balanced eating pattern for someone managing diabetes!! It might look a little different for each person and that’s OK. We all have different needs, food preferences and budgets. 

There is no doubt that social media has the potential to positively impact our preventative health habits, including improved nutrition and health behaviors—if used effectively. Using social media isn’t widely divided by race or even income, according to recent Pew research. Most everyone has access to—and uses—social media.

The accessibility is a gift but with it came the rapid rise of personal branding and influencers. Influencers impact behavior, including purchasing products. This lends itself to a business model of partnerships between companies and personal brands. Partnerships between individuals and brands is not a new concept—celebrity and athlete endorsements have a long history. But what is new: the “everyday person” becoming a lucrative brand, touting products and sharing information. It’s one thing to share a favorite clothing brand but what about recommendations on diet, wellness and healthcare information? It really depends on your source.  

Influencers Versus Influencer Experts

As a child of the 80’s, I remember the Surgeon General that served during part of my childhood, Dr. Charles Everett Koop. He was America’s 13th Surgeon General serving under President Ronald Reagan. I can’t really tell you the names of many of the Surgeon Generals that followed him over the years. The Associated Press reported he was the only surgeon general to become a household name.

Now, COVID may have changed this, with more public exposure to former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams. The point is not intended to be political, but to merely point out that not all experts are media savvy and just because one is media savvy does not mean they are an expert.

More healthcare providers are entering the world of social media. In 2019, the nonprofit Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM) was formed to advance public health by developing standards for social media use in healthcare. The organization provides educational resources for healthcare professionals and advocates for the use of social media as a public health tool to combat misinformation. The leadership team is composed of talented physicians that are very active on social media and committed to providing evidenced-based information to the public.

In today’s oversaturated influencer culture, it’s important to differentiate between an influencer and influencer expert especially when it comes to where you receive nutrition and health guidance. Dawn Jackson Blatner RDN, CSSD author of The Flexitarian Diet and The Superfood Swap provides some insight on how to distinguish between the two. 

“First, there’s a difference between an influencer expert and an influencer! Influencer Expert is someone who offers information and ideas backed by a formal education and extensive training. An influencer is someone who encourages you to do something (influence you) without a formal education or training. Usually based on their own personal experience.”

Media savvy healthcare leaders who are taking the reins of social media are vital to all fields, but improved consumer awareness on how to seek accurate information from credentialed professionals helps ensure that more of these voices are heard.

In the article below, several media savvy registered dietitians— DJ Blatner, Jackie Newgent, Erin Palinski-Wade, and Kim Rose—provide their best tips on looking for red flags online. AHSM also has great tips for interpreting social media (you can find their full list of tips here). Before repeating or reposting what we find online, we need to assess the credibility of posts by cross-checking information with other reputable sources, evaluating the comments, and checking with other professionals online and in-person.  

So the next time you decide to follow someone’s feed for nutrition or health information, stop, then evaluate the account and the person’s professional background—not just how entertaining the content appears to be.

Keep in mind that just because your physician, nurse practitioner, ophthalmologist, physical therapist or dietitian isn’t active on social media, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t excellent sources of evidenced-based information.

We all need to scroll and share information more responsibly online. We might all be a little under the influence of social media, but let’s not allow it to take over our critical thinking skills.

And remember that when discussing your personal health needs, it’s always wise to start by creating a healthy dialogue with the healthcare providers who know you best.

Read This, Not That on Your Social Channels: 8 Red Flags Dietitians Want You to Know

Eager to hear about the latest in nutrition and wellness? On social media, paying attention — both to the source and the information — is key to separating fact from fiction. I reached out to some of my favorite registered dietitians, all active on social media, to learn what to watch out for on your feed. 

DJ Blatner RDN, CSSD, author of The Flexitarian Diet & The Superfood Swap

IG: @djblatner Twitter: @djblatner Facebook: @djblatner

RED FLAG # 1: The author has no formal education or extensive training.

“Always make sure you know WHO is writing the content and if their background and training matches with the information. Ask yourself, is this the BEST source for the information I need? For example: a trainer or general health coach giving nutrition advice isn’t the best source or a fitness model giving exercise advice isn’t the best source.” @djblatner

RED FLAG #2: The content is based on personal experience, not research.

“Just because something worked for someone, doesn’t mean it will work for you or be safe for you to do.” @djblatner

RED FLAG #3: The information is not anywhere else.

“If the information you are reading is something you can’t find anywhere else, it is likely more of an opinion than a fact. Look for .gov, .edu, .org websites and/or websites that list actual research studies used to write the content (and actually go to those studies to see they are real & say what the article suggested).” @djblatner

Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, plant-forward culinary nutritionist and author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook

IG: @jackienewgent; Twitter:@jackienewgent; Facebook: @jackienewgentRD

RED FLAG #4: Don’t judge quality of nutrition and wellness information by the quantity of social media followers. 

“Social media influencers can be awesome advocates for health. But having lots of followers doesn’t necessarily translate to solid advice. For sound nutrition guidance, look for information from a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), for instance. And if they’re also a major influencer, that’s awesome!” @jackienewgent

RED FLAG #5: Be mindful of nutrition information that’s accompanied by a product for purchase. 

“While this doesn’t automatically mean that the information provided is inaccurate, it may suggest that you’re getting only a positive take on the topic. So, view information you’re reading through a discerning lens.”@jackienewgent

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT

Nutrition Consultant/Speaker/Spokesperson/Author of the "Belly Fat Diet For Dummies," "2 Day Diabetes Diet,"& "Walking the Weight Off For Dummies"

IG:@erinpalinskiwade; Twitter:@ErinPalinski; Pinterest:@ErinPalinski

Facebook:@HealthyMomHappierFamily; YouTube:@healthymomhappyfamily 

RED FLAG #6: Be wary of the term “nutritionist.”

“The term ‘nutritionist’ isn’t regulated and can be used by everyone from credentialed health professionals to influencers with no nutrition background at all. Before taking action on any health advice you find online, research the source and be sure the information is coming from a qualified health professional.” @Erinpalinskiwade

RED FLAG #7:No resources are cited. 

“Look for wellness information that is backed up with scientific studies and references. Anyone can share an opinion online, but that advice can be based on personal experiences versus scientific evidence. If an influencer is unable to back up their health advice with research, it may be because the evidence to support the claims doesn’t actually exist.” @Erinpalinskiwade

Kimberley Rose-Francis RDN, LD, CDE

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist | Certified Diabetes Educator


RED FLAG #8: Demonizing specific foods or food groups

“One of the easiest ways to identify a red flag from an unlicensed “food and nutrition expert” is when they tell you to avoid any particular foods or food groups. This is especially true when you don’t have a legitimate food sensitivity or allergy. Food sensitivities and allergies warrant an omittance of certain foods or food groups under the supervision of a medical doctor or experienced dietitian. Pro tip: anyone telling you to omit a particular food or food group from your diet without running the proper diagnostic tests should be a warning sign. In other words, take it as red flag and run! Don’t be misled down a false rabbit hole of unsubstantiated nutrition claims.”

 Kimberley Rose-Francis RDN, LD, CDE