Fact-checking online healthy food advice

Instagram nutrition blogger, Yiana Bacolas, capturing content for her page @ahealthyappetitie. Photo Chelsea Byrne
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As the number of social media influencers increases, especially in the field of giving nutritional advice, how can the average user know what’s true and false? Chelsea Byrne reports.
Instagram nutrition blogger, Yiana Bacolas, capturing content for her page @ahealthyappetitie. Photo Chelsea Byrne

The phenomenon of online influencers continues to grow at an alarming rate. And with it, the amount of people susceptible to the information and advice those influencers spread through their popular blogs and Instagram pages. Australians are constantly looking to live a better life, whether that be a healthier or more lively one through nutrition and fitness. We’re constantly trying new diets in a hope to lose weight in the least amount of time, without considering the repercussions for our bodies.

Nutrition online and nutritional influencers, whether they are qualified or not, are becoming dangerous sources of information for vulnerable people who are looking to be “healthier”, according to nutritional scientist Lee Morton. And even worse, she says those influencers don’t know how highly regulated nutritional advice-giving is.

In Australia, nutritional advice online is highly regulated; people are not meant to provide any advice on the internet whatsoever. “I can guarantee that 90 percent of nutritionists don’t understand insurance, the law, or the regulators,” says Lee. “People are always giving health advice who are not trained to do so, and it’s scary because they will get pulled up.” Lee uses her Instagram and Facebook profiles to promote her business and some general nutrition advice, with respect to specific guidelines and nutrient reference insurance. “But if I go outside of that scope I’m so liable,” she says. “I’m so liable it’s not funny.” Yet there’s a whole other issue in regards to nutritional advice online, and that’s how do we tell the fact from fiction?

Qualified nutritionist and dietician, Yiana Bacolas, runs both a successful Instagram page, ‘Well Dressed’, and website, ‘A Healthy Appetite’, with the aim of breaking nutritional myths. With a steadily growing 1,444 followers, she provides general nutritional advice based on scientific evidence, with a priority of being a credible source for followers. She believes that people aren’t seeking this information traditionally anymore, and therefore online sources have quickly become the first point of contact between a nutritionist and client.

“The amount of people that follow me who are so keen on health, fitness and nutrition is great,” says Yiana Bacolas. “It’s great to see that people are getting interested in health and nutrition, so it’s almost become a type of community online.” However it all goes pear shaped when influencers start promoting their personal experiences. “You can’t say to someone that they should have this or that, because it may not work for them.”

Naturopathy student Portia Haase believes popular influencers on social media are taking nutritional advice down a negative path. “Those influencers that have a beautiful figure and appear to have an amazing lifestyle are the people that followers look up to and are easily influenced by,” she says. “People would rather be like the person who runs the page rather than consider what it is they’re actually doing and how it will effect their own bodies.” This is where nutritional advice-giving online can become extremely dangerous, and influencers become liable. 

Naturopath student, Portia Haase, in her natural foodie habitat. Photo Chelsea Byrne.

The case of “wellness” Instagram blogger Belle Gibson is a disastrous example of this. In 2009 Belle became a household name for her claims that she was suffering from terminal brain cancer, and that she cured it through alternative therapies and nutrition. In 2015, after she had a significant amount of online following, and released both a successful book and app, it came to light that she never actually had the disease. She has since been found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct, and was fined $410,000. The Federal Court also found that Belle had made false claims about donating a large portion of her profits to charity, and she now faces jail time for her behaviour.

In an article summarising Belle’s case, Professor Chris Rojek wonders how many patients are now in a worse medical condition or dead after following Belle’s nutritional advice. But according to Yiana, it’s becoming even harder for online users to decipher between right and wrong information, despite online users watching these scandals unfold.

When Yiana reads something online and isn’t able to determine straight away whether it’s fact or fiction, she starts with a google search to see if it’s just a “trending topic”. More often then not, the first five links on google are within the last one or two days. “Then I know that it’s just fiction or an excuse for news,” she says. Remaining relevant is 101 in social media engagement, and unfortunately it seems that that’s all that our nutritional influencers are thinking about; not their followers. “It’s all a money making thing,” says Yiana. “When you reach a certain amount of followers, companies can pay you to promote their products. But 99.9 percent of the time that person probably doesn’t even use or eat that product.”

And the endorsements are driving the rest of the industry crazy. “It’s obviously very hard as a dietitian to be able to do your work sometimes,” says Yiana. “Say you’re working in a private practice, you’re now competing with bloggers, celebrities and nutritionists online.” In agreement, Portia believes that social media is disrupting the “proper means of guidance between a nutritionist and a client.” “Go see your nutritionist for a one-on-one consultation,” she says, rather than seeking the information online. “Social media is what health problems stem from, such as eating disorders and negative outlooks on food intake.”

Experts believe millennials are the most vulnerable audience at the hand of nutritional advice on the internet. However, Lee says the audience who spend the most amount of money on health advice are middle aged women, aged 35-55. “They say that people have tried at least 30 diets before they see a nutritionist, and that they only see a professional as a last resort,” she says. “It’s so sad.” But there’s still a place for traditional nutritionists she says, and their careers will outlive the current social media platforms. “When people get on Instagram all they’re thinking about is how many likes and followers they get,” she says. “What happens when Instagram ends, and it will, how are these people going to remain relevant?” 

Undoubtably a new social media platform will arise, and new nutritional influencers will appear on vulnerable followers’ radars. But the process of identifying red flags in nutritional information remains the same across any online platform. Yiana recommends using this three step process when faced with suspicious information on the internet:

  1. Check the reliability of your sources
  2. Ask for the evidence
  3. Stay curious

“Don’t always believe everything you read,” she says. “Always research your author to see what qualifications they have. Lee similarly believes that if the influencer or blogger doesn’t state their qualifications, it’s a very bad sign. “Another is if they call themselves a health coach,” she laughs.

The key is to challenge what you read, whether it’s come directly from a source or passed on by a friend. It is clear that most influencers, especially those who aren’t qualified nutritionists, just don’t seem to be invested in their followers in the way they should be. “You should be able to trust what you read online,” says Portia. “Especially when it comes to nutrition, that’s the frustrating part.”

This world of online media that we’re now all caught up in, living vicariously through famous and luxurious people’s lives, has made us forget who we are and what our reality is. “Influencers are painted as perfect people with their shit together basically,” says Portia. “They just look so good, and people think that if they eat like them maybe they will look like or live like them too.”

Yiana says it is so important to not immediately trust your sources. And if they don’t have the qualification, don’t trust them. She encourages online users to challenge their sources, keeping in mind that there are ways to gain the advice you need through proper, reliable means. Go see your nutritionist, or message that influencer you admire for some specially catered-for-you advice. Most online “nutritionists” are corrupted by the idea of fame, says Yiana, and they don’t have the appropriate qualifications to be giving such advice.

“I don’t have a degree in finance or law, so I’m not going to give you law advice or tell you how banking works,” says Yiana. “If you don’t have the degree, don’t give the advice.”