A Worrying Study Revealed How Much Inaccurate Diet Info Influencers Give Out Online

by Lauren Sharkey
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In 2019, being an influencer can mean having a following as big as a celebrity's. But their roles are somewhat different. While celebs can have various job descriptions, an influencer is primarily there to influence. But a new study has found that certain social media presences could be having a detrimental impact on the average person's health. According to a team at the University of Glasgow, a large majority of influencers are giving inaccurate diet advice.

The process adopted by researchers was simple. A specialist site was used to identify the UK's top 14 influencers in the weight management sphere. The chosen influencers had to have more than 80,000 followers on at least one social media platform, blue tick verification from at least two sites, and an active weight management blog. Five individuals were then removed from the list as less than half of their blog posts were related to nutrition or exercise.

Nine remaining influencers had their blogs analysed and scored against 12 criterial points. Researchers looked at whether blog content was trustworthy, transparent, and nutritionally correct, and if evidence-based references were used. The presence of bias was also examined and the last 10 recipes posted on the blog were checked for carbohydrate, protein, fat, saturated fat, fibre, sugar, salt, and energy content.

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If an influencer's score was at least 70 percent, they were deemed to have passed the test. But according to the findings (which were presented at the European Congress on Obesity), most influencers failed. As the Independent reports, only one in nine bloggers were actually giving their audience accurate information and advice.

Specifically, researchers found that five influencers had written their opinion and presented it as fact. A big no no when it comes to anything health-related. One of the most surprising results, however, was that not one influencer met the dietary recommendations laid out by Public Health England.

A registered degree-educated nutritionist and their advice blog did achieve a pass with a score of 75 percent. But the lowest score was just 25 percent, state the researchers. (This came from someone with no nutrition-based qualifications.) Even a medical doctor failed to pass.

The study's authors are calling for tighter influencer regulation. "Currently, no standards exist to assess the credibility of influencers' blogs," author Christine Sabbagh said in a statement. "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."

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A backlash against celebrities unethically promoting detox teas and appetite-suppressing lollipops has already begun. But this is an entirely different ballgame. Influencers usually stick to a niche and, by doing so, give the impression that they are an expert in that field. Followers trust in and rely on them. To hear that many could be inaccurately giving health advice is worrying to say the least.

“This study adds to the evidence of the destructive power of social media," Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, told the Independent. "Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can take to the ether, post whatever they like, and be believed by their followers.

"Particularly unfortunate is that the genie is now firmly out of the bottle and getting these bloggers to conform to standards, though desirable, will be nigh impossible. The bloggers will defend their right to freedom of speech to the hilt but publishing junk advice is indefensible," he finished.

Many would struggle to disagree.