Are online influencers a good source for health advice?

The online health and fitness industry has grown significantly in the years following the COVID-19 lockdowns. Many took interest in improving their physical health and used the excess down time to create new exercise and eating habits. As a result, more people now turn to social media influencers for guidance on proper health, nutrition and fitness. This trend is expected to continue in the coming decade, as the market value of the online fitness industry was $14.9 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $250.7 billion by 2032.

While it is good that more people are making their physical health and fitness a priority, consumers of online health and fitness content must be wary of misinformation and cautious about the sources they take advice from. Failure to do so may cause consumers of online fitness media to misconstrue health with physical fitness and adopt practices that end up harming their long-term health more than helping it.

Online dietitians are a popular resource that viewers rely on for accurate diet recommendations backed by science. However, despite being licensed health care professionals, they, too, must be subject to skepticism. In November 2023, the Federal Trade Commission issued warnings to the American Beverage Association, the Canadian Sugar Institute and 12 licensed dietitians regarding a failure to adequately disclose that influencers were paid to promote the consumption of aspartame and sugary foods.

One of the 12 licensed dietitians addressed was Stephanie Grasso, an influencer with 2.2 million followers on TikTok and 263,000 followers on Instagram. The FTC cited concerns surrounding an American Beverage Association-sponsored post in which Grasso discredited the World Health Organization’s information regarding aspartame, saying that their recommendation against high consumption of the artificial sweetener was based on low-quality science.

Grasso’s posts, as well as those of the other flagged licensed dietitians, lack transparency about a material connection between the endorser and marketer of the product, which may affect credibility. These posts may include “#ad” or “#PaidPartnership” in the caption, but they often do not indicate who is sponsoring the posts. Some influencers also tend to bury these hashtags deep in the text description of a post, making them not visible to viewers at first glance. 

The FTC also issued a warning to dietitian Lindsay Pleskot regarding her lack of disclosure in posts sponsored by the Central States Industrial, a food industry association representing the manufacturers of refined sugar in Canada. Pleskot is a promoter of intuitive eating, encouraging her viewers to achieve their weight loss goals without strict dieting. Her content frequently shows her eating desserts and telling her audience that avoiding sugary foods makes cravings worse and is counteractive to dieting in the long term. The FTC cited her for mocking professionals who recommend a low sugar diet in an Instagram video sponsored by the CSI.

The lack of transparency about sponsorships and the misinformation spread by influencer dietitians such as Pleskot and Grasso is likely more widespread than most realize. Ten more influencers were flagged in the FTC’s warnings, and there is no telling how many more are taking payments from the food industry without properly disclosing that information. People looking for credible, healthy diet recommendations ought to carefully examine their sources before acting on the advice they find.

Online dietitians are not the only people in the online health and fitness space whose recommendations must be questioned. The bodybuilding community is one of the largest niches in this area of content. While bodybuilding methods and diets vary greatly, there are many popular content creators that put their health in jeopardy in order to achieve their muscular and aesthetic goals, potentially setting a bad example for their primary audience of impressionable young boys and men. 

One such influencer is Sam Sulek, a 21-year-old bodybuilder. Fans love him for his authentic, humble character and impressive muscularity, yet many of his eating habits set a poor example. In one YouTube video, he “mandated” all people weighing less than 200 pounds to start a bulk, or to eat in a caloric surplus in order to gain body mass, muscle and strength. Staples of his own bulking diet include gallons of chocolate milk, donuts and sugary cereals. Young viewers who associate muscular and strong bodies with health may disregard the negative effects that this sort of diet can have on overall length and quality of life. 

While a bulk that utilizes fatty and sugary foods is unhealthy, an extremely restrictive diet can be as well. The pressure to look your best on social media leads many influencers to strive for unrealistically low levels of body fat year-round. Some utilize anabolic steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs to achieve this, and even fewer are transparent about their drug use. As self-worth becomes more image-based, trends show that more adolescents are abusing performance enhancing drugs, putting their health at risk in the process. Viewers that strive to look like the influencers they idolize are bound to an unattainable beauty standard when their role models are not open about their steroid use.

Having too low of a body fat percentage — whether natural or enhanced — results in low energy, low libido and hormonal imbalances. Younger audiences have more to lose from trying to maintain an extremely lean physique year-round, as the decrease in testosterone that results from carrying low body fat disrupts puberty and a person’s natural maturation into an adult. It is crucial that consumers of online bodybuilding content do not misconstrue appearance with health. Just because an influencer with an impressive physique advocates dieting in a certain way, it does not mean it’s healthy for you to do the same. 

There is no easy way to combat the spread of misinformation or poor advice online. The FTC is making progress by issuing warnings to individual influencers and the powerful groups whose agendas they are propagating, but given the sheer size of social media communities, it would be hard for regulating agencies to find all offenders. 

There is also nothing that can be done to prevent fitness influencers from promoting the diets that they use to achieve their desired results, healthy or not. Sure, there are other sources for science-backed diet and exercise recommendations, such as doctors or peer-reviewed research papers. But these require a lot of effort to find, whereas scrolling on social media and watching YouTube videos is an easy, lazy way to consume information.

While we can fault influencers who do not reveal the sponsors behind their paid partnerships, viewers should take the initiative to do their own due diligence when looking for online health advice. Recognizing sponsored marketing and being skeptical of unattainable “quick-fix” claims are important to avoiding poor advice. In the end it is on each person engaging with health and exercise content to vet their sources and understand the nuances that distinguish overall health from strength and appearance.

Ethan Bittner is an Opinion Columnist from Santa Rosa, California. He writes about American culture and the global climate crisis. Ethan can be reached at [email protected].

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