Social media influencers unfit for weight management advice: ‘Misinformation can undermine public health campaigns’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/Rasulovs
©GettyImages/Rasulovs

Related tags: Social media, Obesity, Instagram

Researchers warns that social media influencers with weight management blogs may not offer credible or trustworthy advice.

A new study in the UK has assessed the underlying nutrition and weight management information provided by some of the most popular UK influencers.

The findings, presented for the first time today (30 April) at the European Congress of Obesity (ECO) in Glasgow, reveal that just one of the nine most popular UK bloggers studied met the researchers’ credibility indicators.

Criteria included transparency, evidence-based references, trustworthiness and adherence to nutritional guidance, and bias.

According to lead study author Christina Sabbagh, from the University of Glasgow, the research team had noticed an apparent rise in ‘healthy eating’ or weight loss blogs and social media influencers positioning themselves in the weight loss field.

“Alongside the widespread use of social media in the UK, and people turning to the internet for diet and weight loss advice, we really wanted to find out whether social media influencers weight management blogs could be considered appropriate resources for people trying to lose weight,”​ she told FoodNavigator.

“We also wanted to evaluate the nutritional quality of the meals these influencers were providing on their blogs to check if they were in line with UK nutritional criteria.”

Study finds ‘the majority of the blogs could not be considered credible sources’

The researchers identified the most popular UK influencers with weight management blogs. Required criteria included having more than 80,000 followers on at least one social media platform, blue-tick verification on at least two platforms, and an active weight management blog.

Their blogs were then analysed against 12 ‘credibility indicators’, including the aforementioned transparency, use of other sources, trustworthiness, and bias.

Meal recipes from each blog were also analysed – looking at energy, carbohydrates, protein, fat, saturated fat, fibre, sugar and salt content – against two UK public health campaigns.

Public Health England’s ‘One You’ calorie reduction campaign sets calorie reduction targets, and the UK Food Standards Agency’s Traffic Light scheme indicates whether levels of sugar, salt and fat are high, medium or low, based on the amount per 100 g.

The numbers:

  • Seven influencers provided nutrition and weight management advice.
  • Five failed to provide evidence-based references for nutrition claims, or presented opinion as fact.
  • Five influences failed to provide a disclaimer.
  • Only three suggested recipes that met Public Health England’s calorie targets and traffic light criteria.
  • Just one blogger passed the study criteria. The influencer in question is registered as a nutritionist with the UK Association for Nutrition.

“We found that only two of the nine were adequately qualified, and only one had a formal degree in nutrition,”​ Sabbagh told this publication. “The one with the formal degree in nutrition was the only one to go on to pass the checklist.”

Many of the recipes were very high in calories, she continued. “For example, one influencer had a breakfast of over 1062 kcal and an evening meal recipe of over 1500 kcal - and in their FAQs stated that yes, this plan would help someone lose weight.”

In addition, five influencers did not provide disclaimers and many did not provide evidence-based references to back up their claims.

"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 UK nutritional criteria

"This is potentially harmful, as these blogs reach such a wide audience" - Christina Sabbagh, the University of Glasgow

Stakeholders called to action

The study findings are concerning, given the influence social media celebrities can have over the public.

“Whether [it relates to] purchasing a product, following a certain lifestyle, or completing a call to action, they are able to connect with their follows and shape their attitudes and behaviours,” ​said Sabbagh.

In weight management, this could prove problematic, as currently there is no requirement for such influencers to be professionally qualified. “They could be spreading opinion-based advice, rather than evidence based, and that could encourage the spread of misinformation,” ​she continued.

“This misinformation can act to undermine efforts of evidence-based campaigns by e.g. public health organisations. Also, if they are providing recipes that are high in calories but claim to help with weight loss - this might hinder any weight loss attempts by those following the blogs (and we found very high calorie recipes!)”

Stricter regulations controlling social media influencers’ weight management output could be one way to address the issue.

“Social media moves so quickly and regulations have not kept up. Online 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,”​ Sabbagh suggested.

“We need to make sure that any policy and regulatory changes that we are making in the offline world are reflected online so that we are not just displacing the problems online.”

"Currently, no standards exist to assess the credibility of influencers' blogs.

"Given the popularity and impact of social media, all influencers should be required to meet accepted scientifically or medically justified criteria for the provision of weight management advice online" – Christina Sabbagh, the University of Glasgow

Food and beverage manufacturers may also have a role to play in limiting misinformation on social media channels.

 Sabbagh suggested stakeholders could introduce stricter protocol regarding what is said about their products, for example. “Perhaps through vetting their influencer marketers more carefully.”

Selecting qualified influencers would be one such way to address this issue, she told this publication. “There are many registered dieticians who are qualified to give advice who could help food and beverage companies with this – and many are influential in their own right.”

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