Reddit groups might help, while Instagram influencers could set unrealistic expectations. So is it ever useful to turn to social media for diet advice?
There are a dizzying number of people, companies and accounts hawking diet advice online. To take just one example, a quick search for the hashtag #fitspiration on Instagram brings up millions of images – close-ups of ultra-defined abs, huge biceps, “transformation” before/after pictures and people in workout gear lifting weights.
Behind them all lurks a big question: Can social media can help or hinder your diet?
Keep one key thing in mind. If you’re looking to lose weight, especially a lot of weight, consult a professional first – your doctor or your GP. They can give you personal advice. Not every diet is suitable for every individual.
The expert view
Tim Squirrell, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, compared two big social networks and concluded that text-heavy Reddit has a clear advantage over photo-led Instagram.
Reddit is based around interest communities, he says, and these tend to be more supportive and foster a sense of common purpose.
“People decide what content is most relevant to them, they upvote it, that appears to other people and they can then comment on it,” he notes. The network’s community-based model means that “real people” give advice and share personal stories.
Squirrell cites the example of the subreddit r/paleo, which has more than 120,000 subscribers, devoted to the so-called “caveman diet”. The paleo diet focuses on foods that you can theoretically hunt or find in nature, the same way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did before the agricultural revolution – so there’s a strong emphasis on meat, fish and eggs, at the expense of bread, pasta, deep-fried snacks and microwave meals.
Squirrell says Reddit users often encourage each other to stick to a diet.
“They’ll share their failures as well as their successes,” he adds.
On Instagram, by contrast, tips frequently get dished out by high-profile influencers, who are often selling products, or promoting their own lifestyles.
“If you are on Instagram often the aspiration for you will be to get sponsored or be on advertisements and the consequence of that is that you have more of an incentive to embellish and to propagandise than you do on somewhere like Reddit,” he says.
But some professionals warn against leaning too much on any social network if you’re hoping to get in shape.
Christy Brissette is a registered dietician in Chicago. Although she has a popular Instagram account, she agrees that blindly following fitness influencers may not necessarily be very good for your health. But she’s also unenthusiastic about Reddit. She’s seen clients receive abuse from users on the social network – where people don’t have to use their real names.
“I think the negative thing about being able to hide behind that anonymity is that people will say things on Reddit that they would never say to an actual person,” she says.
She also points to the large amount of unhelpful or even dangerous advice available on social media platforms. For instance, one subreddit with more than 200,000 members advocates extreme calorie restriction as a way to lose weight. It’s unhealthy and potentially dangerous advice for the vast majority of of adults. Most experts agree that women need about 2,000 calories a day, men on average about 2,500.
“I feel that myth-busting as a dietician is really a full-time job,” Brissette says. “I think a lot of the information is coming from individuals who don’t have the expertise to be counselling people.”
She’s had clients who have made themselves ill by following bad advice online, she told BBC Trending.
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Brissette also points out that while a few social media fitness influencers may have training and qualifications, the vast majority don’t. Personal trainers usually need insurance, an awareness of anatomy and physiology, first aid training and a qualification. Other healthcare professionals have specialised training and multiple degrees.
And then there’s the effect of seeing hundreds of perfectly posed social media pictures of beautiful skinny people. Unrealistic expectations can set people up for failure, Brissette says.
“If you find you’re feeling demotivated or you’re feeling down about yourself and you come away from social media feeling anxious, or feeling depressed, then definitely taking breaks and not being on it all the time is a good thing,” she concludes.
One man’s quest
Of course many dieters have one primary concern: results.
“It hurt to walk. I couldn’t do anything a normal 20-year-old was supposed to do.”
Joey Morganelli’s weight had hit more than 28 stone (400 pounds, or 180kg). Morganelli, from Michigan and now 23, started seriously trying to lose weight when he got his first job.
“I basically starved myself because I was so scared to eat. Every time I ate I would actually panic. It sounds silly that eating a cheeseburger causes someone to panic but at the end of the day greasy food was my trigger,” he says.
It wasn’t a good strategy, but he was encouraged by a Reddit community to adopt a new and more sustainable diet.
“It was breathtaking to see the support you get from people that you don’t even know, sometimes that affirmation is more important than even the people closest to you because they don’t have this bias or preconceived notion about you,” he says.
He made progress. But he still struggles with weight fluctuations. And after a long period in which he managed to slim down considerably, social media communities couldn’t help him keep all the weight off. A new job opportunity in May reignited his comfort eating.
“June was when I really started to let myself go just because there was a lot of stress again,” he says, “and my comforting thing in life is food.”
It’s a cautionary tale – Morganelli’s weight increased again, and he’s now at 22.5 stone (315 pounds, or more than 140kg).
Blog by Jonathan Griffin
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