Are Your Patients Getting Dodgy Diet Advice Online?

Christina Sabbagh


April 30, 2019

My name is Christina Sabbagh and I work in policy and communications at Obesity Action Scotland. And I'm here at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) 2019 in Glasgow.

What were the findings of your study into the quality of social media influencers' nutritional advice?

What we found was that the information presented on social media influencers' weight management blogs was not necessarily credible, and therefore they couldn't really be used as credible resources for weight management.

A lot of the influencers didn't provide evidence-based references. We found that a lot of the recipes that were provided didn't provide an adequate calorie deficit. So a lot of them were actually providing far more calories than you would expect.

We also found that not a lot of social media influencers are providing disclaimers on their blogs.

What sort of influencers were they? Were any of them qualified?

We found that 2 of the 9 influencers were qualified and one of them was an Association for Nutrition (AfN)-registered nutritionist who had a formal degree in nutrition. The other one was a medical doctor. But they were the only people that had any sort of formal training in weight management.

Did the trained ones perform better?

One of them did and one of them didn't. The AfN-registered nutritionist, who had a formal nutrition degree, was the only person to pass our checklist. And she passed with 83%.

The medical doctor didn't pass the checklist and only scored 42%, which means that they only scored half of indicator points needed as a pass.

What wasn't the doctor doing right?

The doctor didn't provide a disclaimer. They didn't provide adequate evidence based references, and also in our traffic light analysis they didn't have enough to pass that. And then overall, they didn't pass the checklist either.

Do influencers realise the dangers of giving bad advice?

I don't think so. I think in a lot of the cases, they truly believe that they are providing accurate advice and that they're helping people. It's just that the advice and information that they're giving is really opinion based. And if they're not saying where the evidence comes from, people take it as, this is what I should be doing. And this is right, and this is going to help me lose weight.

And as we've seen from the results, it's not necessarily going to be the case.

Who is most at risk from bad diet advice online?

Firstly, children are the sort of people that are following social media influencers. And we've seen links between viewing social media influencers on YouTube and Instagram and a risk of overconsumption, just from viewing influencers consuming foods.

But people that are using the blogs tend to be women, there may be women who are cooking for their families, or they are women who are trying to find healthy recipes and to lose weight in many cases.

So, although we don't know the behavioural effects on these women, that would be something it'd be interesting to find out. We do know that it does have an effect on behaviour.

What's the solution?

I think we need to be considering some regulations when it comes to social media influencers.

I know it'd be very difficult to do because, of course, social media is so vast and all we can do in this country is regulate the UK social media influencers.

But what we can do is maybe have a voluntary regulation where they sign up to a scheme where they say, yes, I'm going to do this, this, and this. And if obviously, that doesn't work, then maybe some mandatory regulations.

Something that we suggested was perhaps having a credibility badge that they can place on a blog. So it's been assessed for credibility, and it's something that would have to be assessed at regular intervals.

And they can display it on their blog and so the public can then look at it and see, yes, this has been assessed and I know that this is more likely to be a credible source, so they can make the decision whether they want to use that or not.


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