June 18, 2024

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New research finds that over 50% of Millennial and Gen-Z TikTok users are influenced by diet and nutrition trends on the platform, yet only 2% of nutrition content on the app is accurate. mixetto/Getty Images
  • A new survey found that 57% of Millenial and Gen-Z TikTok users reported being influenced by or frequently adopting nutrition trends they learned about on the platform.
  • However, only about 2% are accurate compared to public health and nutrition guidelines.
  • Experts are concerned about TikTok’s influence, given the potential for misinformation.

The fact that fad diets and nutrition advice are widely shared on social media platforms like TikTok is not new news.

However, a new survey conducted by MyFitnessPal and Dublin City University suggests the majority of diet and nutrition trends on TikTok are not aligned with public health and nutrition guidelines.

Even more concerning is that of the 2,000 Millennial and Gen-Z TikTok users surveyed, 57% of respondents said they had been influenced by or frequently tried nutrition trends they saw on the platform.

Yet, only 2.1% of nutrition content on the platform is accurate, according to an AI-based analysis of more than 67,000 videos conducted with Dublin City University that compared TikTok videos against regulated public health and nutrition guidelines.

“The latest research conducted by MyFitnessPal, which partnered with Dublin City University, uncovered that there is a tremendous amount of health and nutrition misinformation on TikTok,” says Dr. Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, FAND, a nutrition professor at Boston University, author of Nutrition & You, and the host of the nutrition & health podcast, Spot On!, who was not involved in the study.

The new data comes as part of a two-part project.

First, MyFitnessPal polled 2,000 Millennial and Gen-Z TikTok users. Of the 57% of people who reported being influenced by TikTok health and nutrition trends, more than two-thirds (67%) said they tried at least one of the viral ideas a few times weekly.

Furthermore, 30% of respondents said they tried the TikTok trend despite potential health risks, and 31% reported feeling an adverse effect from a “fad diet” trend.

“Every individual has different needs, and when people try to adapt to the same fads or concepts, individuals . . . can create nutrient deficiencies by removing whole food groups, and if they are not getting what they need, they will eventually negatively affect mood, focus, and cognition ,” says Amy Goldsmith RDN, LDN, the founder of Kindred Nutrition.

MyFitnessPal also teamed up with Dublin City University to analyze more than 67,0000 videos with nutrition content using artificial intelligence and compared them to regulated health and nutrition guidance.

Preliminary findings indicated that only 2.1% was accurate when checked against this guidance. And the 97.9% of content not included was classified as inaccurate, partially accurate, or uncertain because of a lack of scientific evidence supporting the claim.

Despite TikTok’s influence, Gen-Z users said they trusted content from qualified registered dieticians over information dispensed by uncredentialed influencers.

“Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop them from adopting trends from unqualified people,” worries Emily Van Eck, MS, RD. “That so many people are adopting baseless trends and being harmed by them is unsettling.”

Blake shared similar sentiments.

“While extremely concerning, these findings support other studies that have identified that unqualified individuals are providing nutrition and health misinformation and disinformation,” Blake says.

It’s also in step with TikTok’s broader influence.

PEW Research from 2023 indicated that the number of U.S. adults regularly getting their news from TikTok quadrupled in three years, from 3% in 2020 to 14% in 2023. About one-third (32%) of people ages 18 to 29 reported regularly getting their news via TikTok.

While one dietitian is also concerned by the findings, she notes it’s important to acknowledge the manner in which the survey was conducted leaves room for flaws.

“It is vital to acknowledge that at this time, we do not have enough evidence to suggest whether — and if so, to what extent — AI can, on its own, determine whether a video or piece of content follows public health and nutrition guidelines,” said Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, who was not involved in the study.

Additionally, while bias is an issue on TikTok, especially when influencers are paid to promote certain products, Pasquariello cautions that MyFitnessPal is not unbiased, either. The app dispenses nutrition information.

“We could make the deduction that by telling folks not to turn to TikTok, they might turn to MyFitnessPal instead — and, as they suggest, use the “tool” on their website, bringing more people to their platform,” Pasquariello says. “They have as much of a vested interest in keeping eyes and clicks on their website as TikTok does.”

A small study of 20 women with an average age of about 22 who self-monitored their diet on MyFitnessPal indicated that experiences varied and that, while it can be useful for some, it could become harmful if used obsessively.

Blake says the misformation found on TikTok poses numerous health risks.

“Nutrition misinformation can be dangerous if followed without the guidance of a person’s health care provider and the nutrition expertise of an RDN,” Blake says. “Many folks are on medications and have chronic medical issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure for which they must follow a specific diet to meet their nutrition needs. Also, extreme dieting and the promotion of elimination diets that are often promoted via social media can feed into disordered eating and malnutrition, especially among young adults.”

However, as the survey indicates, qualified individuals are dispensing information on social media.

“Though it’s never where I recommend folks go first for nutrition advice, social media can still be a useful tool for spreading awareness about public health initiatives and evidence-based nutrition advice,” Pasquariello says. “Though they’re few and far between, some influencers and experts know what they’re talking about and are extremely rigorous in the content they put out.”

How can you determine who is who? Experts say following these simple tips can help.

Consider the source

Credentials matter.

“Health coaches and nutritionists — and many of the “experts” who grace our podcast feeds — are not required to undergo any training [in many states] to give themselves these titles,” Pasquariello says. “They often fail to properly synthesize research or consider new studies in the context of our understanding of the evidence at large, as they never received training in parsing literature for a lay audience. Their aim is to get views and listens and to make money.”

Pasquariello notes that RDs must undergo extensive, science-focused education and hundreds of hours of training under supervision, including work in clinical nutrition and research settings.

“Beyond that, they have to stay up to date on the latest research and obtain continuing education credits in order to retain their credentials year to year,” she says.

In short, look for RD/RDN in a person’s bio.

“The RDN has also passed a national exam administered by this accrediting body,” Blake says. Starting in 2024, all RDN candidates will be required to hold a master of science degree before taking this national exam.”

Do some research

Pasquariello suggests fact-checking information, including any studies touted by influencers — even RDs/RDNs.

“It’s important that any RD you’re getting nutrition advice from is able to present peer-reviewed science-based information to back up the advice they’re dispensing or claims they’re making,” Pasquariello says. “Optimally, this means randomized, controlled clinical trials and meta-analyses.”

Read past the abstract at the top of the study.

“So many people who push out nutrition advice online fail to actually read a study in its entirety before making sweeping claims about something that may have appeared in one line of the abstract of a long piece of scientific literature,” Pasquariello says.

Additionally, see if there are more recent studies.

“This is one of the most important ones, but I think it is the least talked about,” Pasquariello says. “As medical professionals and RDs, we have an obligation to look at any new study in the context of the literature at large. Whenever a new study comes out that seems to upend what we know about a subject or presents an entirely new direction to the research, I like to picture the findings as a tiny dot inside a huge circle. Yes, we should consider new pieces of evidence, but always in the context of everything else in that arena to date.”

Spot keywords

Pasquariello says some popular buzzwords are red flags, including:

  • Toxic/toxins
  • Poisons
  • Chemicals
  • Quick-fix
  • Cleanse
  • Detox
  • Reset
  • Quick weight loss
  • Never eat X
  • Always do Y

“I also grow wary whenever someone mentions supplements, gut health, cortisol, hormone imbalance, gut reset, heal your gut lining, and the like without clarifying explicitly what they mean and in what scenarios,” she says. If you’re judicious, you’ll soon realize just how often these terms are thrown around as vague, eye-catching mentions rather than being fully explained or contextualized.

Do a gut check

Van Eck suggests checking in with yourself before following advice found on TikTok.

“Keep in mind that one person’s experience is not proof that something is right for you, even if they are an expert,” she says. “Think critically about the tip they are offering.”

She suggests asking yourself:

  • Is adopting this trend going to take a considerable amount of time, money, or attention resources from me that might be more significant than the potential benefit?
  • Does the nutrition hack seem too good to be true? (“It probably is,” Van Eck says.)
  • Do I think that because this person is “thinner,” younger, more toned, or has smoother skin, trying this questionable trend will make me look more like them?

“If it seems like they’re showing off their body, they likely feel as if their body is their business card,” Van Eck says. “That is a red flag.”

Use evidence-based resources

While the information found online can be murky, there are evidence-based resources people can turn to. The experts Healthline spoke with recommended the following:

Additionally, in-person resources, such as through RDs and RDNs or WIC programs, can also assist in the form of accurate information.

New data from MyFitnessPal indicates that nearly 6 in 10 Gen-Z and Millenial TikTok users are heavily influenced by health and nutrition content found on the platform.

However, in a further analysis with Dublin City University, preliminary findings suggested that only 2.1% of the information was accurate compared to regulated health and nutrition guidelines.

Experts say it’s best to seek information from RDs and RDNs, who have vast training in nutrition.

Fact-checking claims by looking at the actual study, reading past the abstract, and seeking data from additional studies to support or refute the claim made by a person online is also helpful.

Seeing an RD or RDN in person or using websites from regulated bodies for information, such as the CDC or FDA, can also help you find more accurate insights and data to support your health.


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