The Diet Therapist


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Social Media...can it help you stick to fitness/nutrition goals?

Are nutrition, fitness & health communities on Instagram empowering or destructive?

Posted by The Diet Therapist, 10th March 2017

Digital platforms have made thousands of “virtual” health and diet-related communities readily accessible to everyone.  The rise of social media has meant that health “advice” is easily available to anyone but at the same time, “anyone” can distribute information – and it’s hard to validate the credibility of all the information and advice out there. 


As an increasing amount of people engage with thee platforms in search of both “inspiration” and “advice,” this can lead to both an unhealthy fixation with interactive “health” communities, body image issues and disordered eating, and also with individuals following well intentioned but possible damaging advice.



Several media outlets picked up on a study from the Georgia Institute of Technology last week which analysed nearly 700 individuals who connected MyFitnessPal accounts (this is a food & calorie-tracking app/website), to their twitter profiles. They looked at whether “diet compliance success” (measured via self-reported food diaries) could be predicted by examining the language and content of their twitter posts as well as “social capital” and social connectivity, to derive predictions and patterns in their health behaviour.  Amongst other things, they observed that in terms of the individuals’ meeting self-defined and reported diet goals, twitter users that posted more positive content (including motivational and inspirational content) who expressed a greater sense of achievement in content and who were more social interactive in their activity tended to be more successful. 


There are huge limitations in this study – and all the outcome measures were self-reported.  We have no idea if the individuals were actually eating what they logged in myfitnesspal, what other variables in their life or socio-emotional factors influence their dietary adherence or what they post, and of course, there is “self-selection” bias and self-censorship that comes into play on a social media platform. We all know that people make conscious decisions to filter posts and perhaps many of these individuals perceived or self-reporting “success” (as they define it) also chose not to share specific bits of information that may portray when they had less positive experiences in their day or slipped up on their diet.  Aside from all the different difficult to control variables and other limitations (which I won’t go into here) some of the basic author points were that health behaviour may be predicted via social media posts, and also that this may prove a useful tool in dietary adherence, motivation and inspiration.



Building on this, whilst social media may be a valuable tool for ‘inspiration” for healthier lifestyles (and facilitate positive, supportive virtual communities), this can also become damaging when “health” and what it encompasses in relation to diet and lifestyle are ill-defined.  Whose definition of "healthy" counts? And what happens when “social connectivity” works as peer pressure in a way that might be negative for emotional wellbeing, weight or health? The very term “inspiration” can often be comparison-driven, is relative and subjective, and sometimes rooted in distorted self-perception.  #fitspiration #thinspiration even #healthyyou…. on a platform like Instagram where content is visual, a newsfeed filled with dieting and fitness-related messaging can easily swing into something that far from fostering body positivity, promoting self-acceptance and encouraging a healthy balanced diet actually facilitates obsessive extreme behaviour, body dysmorphia and disordered eating.


What one person promotes as “inspiration” for a healthier lifestyle may be based on their individual interpretation of what ‘healthy’ means for them or how a specific elimination diet helped to manage symptoms of a chronic condition. This doesn’t mean that one restrictive diet (e.g. cutting out meat, or grains, or dairy) would be healthy for someone else looking for dietary guidance for general wellness; in fact, most elimination diets are used under careful supervision of a nutrition practitioner and are often temporary.  Everyone is biochemically unique and your individual dietary needs may change depending on range of factors from age to activity level, whether you are taking medication, have specific symptoms, and have been diagnosed with a specific health condition/disease. 



Be wary of individuals giving specific dietary advice on social media and blogs or responding to individual questions about conditions; dieticians, registered nutritionists and registered nutritional therapists are likely to refrain from dispensing advice about supplements and personal dietary needs on these channels specifically because regulatory bodies require practitioners to obtain certain information (e.g. about any medications,  whether individuals are pregnant or breastfeeding, whether they have symptoms that require medical attention), for safety reasons, before giving out advice.


Following elimination diets touted by people on twitter or Instagram can also be damaging and lead to nutrient deficiencies.  On top of this, the unhealthy moralisation and dichotomisation of food into categories like “clean,” “good,” or “bad” and “toxic” can (particularly for vulnerable young people and users suffering with low self-esteem or distorted body image) lead to extreme behaviour, feelings of guilt or fear around food, disordered eating and orthorexia.


Social media can obviously be a positive thing and help you keep on track with fitness and health goals, but if your instagram feed is saturated with green juices, low-carb snacks and #fitspo images, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparison, inadequacy, and buying into the idea that by eating/drinking/training/living like someone you use on digital platforms you can look like them.  Often, people are selling a lifestyle, which isn’t realistic or actually healthy for you as an individual, but the selected images posted makes that lifestyle seem both attainable and desirable.




Our rational selves all know that there is an element of self-censorship on digital platforms and particularly on social media like Instagram and Twitter where people usually post the positive, glossy, filtered version of themselves and their lifestyle.  Yet a lot of the time, images will elicit an emotional response in many of us that is not always positive (e.g. jealousy, inadequacy, guilt or low self-image).  Look for accounts that promote dietary balance, body acceptance and a positive self-image - but also, pay attention to how you feel when you scroll through your feed. If you follow an account on social media which makes you feel bad about yourself, your life, or the food you eat…unfollow.

If you want personalised nutrition advice, seek out the support from a professional - a registered Dietician, registered Nutritionist or registered Nutritional Therapist.