Rampant misinformation on diets presents a serious threat to public health

Madisyn KristeenMadisyn Kristeen | Updated: 21-07-2022 16:12 IST | Created: 21-07-2022 16:12 IST
Rampant misinformation on diets presents a serious threat to public health
Image Credit: Flickr

Across social media platforms, misinformation on healthy, optimal diets has been spreading wildly, with pseudoscientific claims on veganism being one of the most common examples of a phenomenon that presents a real threat to public health. While the benefits of a plant-based diet are well-documented, grossly exaggerated, and baseless online portrayals of veganism as the dietary silver bullet that our society is obsessively searching for risk undermining its credibility.

The wider problem of social media influencers claiming their diet has a monopoly on healthiness is pulling overwhelmed diet-seekers in all different directions, from the carnivore to the "frugivore" diet by way of the cabbage soup diet and the Mono Diet. In this climate of confusion, consumers desperately need access to scientifically sound and balanced nutritional information that helps them make dietary choices best suited to their individual health needs. This is particularly crucial considering the high contribution of poor diet to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in Europe and globally.

TikTok influencers misleading users on the Mediterranean diet

Of all the "healthy" diets that we are bludgeoned on social media, there is one that actually does have strong scientific backing. The Mediterranean diet – which is heavy on vegetables, fruit, seafood, and olive oil and light on red meat – has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes in numerous studies. The lower prevalence of heart disease in the Euro-Mediterranean countries that follow this diet compared to the United States supports this body of research. In fact, Spain and Italy were ranked as the healthiest and second-healthiest countries in the world, respectively, in the 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index.

Yet a new wave of misinformation on TikTok has reached even the Mediterranean diet. A recent study has found that a worrying amount of TikTok content on the Mediterranean diet fails to represent it accurately and consistently, creating confusion that could prevent users from reaping its full benefits. Over 20% of the #mediterraneandiet TikToks analysed in the study were not even focused on healthy dietary practices but rather a Mediterranean culture; and more alarmingly, nearly 70% of this content encouraged the consumption of foods not usually associated with this diet, such as red meat and refined carbs.

Given recent survey findings that 50% of American adults are more likely to consult the Internet than a medical professional for health advice, this type of misleading information on TikTok and other social media platforms constitutes a subtle but significant threat to public health efforts to tackle rising obesity.

Nutri-score system threatening to add to the problem

Beyond the world of social media, the leading proposal for an EU-wide Front-of-Package (FOP) labelling system is adding another layer to the confusing and misguided nutritional information presented to consumers. Nutri-score, which aims to address the obesity crisis in Europe by helping people make healthier dietary choices, could actually mislead consumers on the nutritional value of the food they purchase and have an adverse effect on public health, as a group of Spanish researchers and the Italian Competition Authority have concluded. While its green-to-red, A-to-E scoring system might seem easy to read for shoppers, this oversimplification risks giving consumers the misguided belief that they can eat large and unhealthy quantities of food products with a "green A" rating. Nutri-score could also allow social media influencers to add a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the misinformation that they are spreading.

Moreover, Nutri-score has the same absolutist and reductionist qualities as the sweeping claims of social media diet gurus. Its algorithm, which gauges the nutritional value of food based on an arbitrary 100ml/g serving, lacks the necessary nuance to provide citizens with a well-informed understanding of how a given food product fits into their wider diet.

This fundamental flaw leads Nutri-score to give unfairly poor grades to certain protected and single-ingredient foods in Europe due to their relatively high sodium, sugar, or fat contents, without factoring in their broader health benefits.

For example, olive oil, a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and a key source of healthy fat, receives a mere "yellow C" Nutri-score despite the fact that it has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease, which has triggered concern amongst its producers that the system will discourage people from consuming this vital product.

Antidotes to the chaos of misinformation

Besides misleading consumers on healthy eating practices, Nutri-score and social media diet influencers have another thing in common: they are not going away. So, we urgently need solutions to counter these sources of misinformation.

Medical professionals and nutritional scientists should respond to this misinformation on social media platforms with their own accurate and useful content. Dr. Udrees Mughal, a physician based in the UK with an expertise in nutrition, has attracted a large social media following by disproving bogus diets trending on these platforms. Increasing numbers of health professionals are getting involved in this effort, but they have their work cut out for them: Dr. Mughal says that "for every large creator who is genuinely evidence-based, you've got 50 or 60 big creators who spread misinformation," so many more need to step up.

On the FOP labelling front, the resistance to Nutri-score should continue in the build-up to the European Commission's final decision on an EU-wide FOP system later this year. Instead, the Commission should consider alternative systems – such as Italy's NutrInform Battery – that better protect the Mediterranean diet and provide consumers with a more well-rounded understanding of their food choices.

This is particularly important in the context of the misinformation on veganism and other trending diets rampant on social media, which directly undermines growing attempts from governments and health professionals to improve our dietary habits. As a society, we must address this growing threat to public health and ensure that the way forward is paved with strong and accessible nutritional education, coherent food policy, and balanced, scientifically-grounded debates on healthy diets.

(Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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