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TikTok Has a Lot of Misleading Nutrition Tips, Study Finds

New surveillance research shows that some of the posts shared under #mediterraneandiet are not related to health and may mislead users about the diet Key TakeawaysNew research found that TikTok content about the Mediterranean Diet is highly variable, which may lead to confusion for users.Over 20% of the content shared with #mediterraneandiet focused on Mediterranean culture, not the healthy

  • Posted on 21st Jun, 2022 17:35 PM
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TikTok Has a Lot of Misleading Nutrition Tips, Study Finds Image

Key Takeaways

  • New research found that TikTok content about the Mediterranean Diet is highly variable, which may lead to confusion for users.
  • Over 20% of the content shared with #mediterraneandiet focused on Mediterranean culture, not the healthy eating pattern.
  • Posts created by healthcare professionals were more likely to include an accurate description of the Mediterranean Diet and cite scientific studies.

TikTok users may be spreading misleading information about the Mediterranean Diet, an eating pattern that is hailed as the gold standard by many nutrition professionals.

A new study analyzed over 200 TikToks with the hashtag #mediterraneandiet. Around 20% of these videos focused on Mediterranean culture instead of health, and almost 70% of these posts promoted foods that are not aligned with this particular diet.

“The biggest issue, in my opinion, is consumer confusion. If a patient doesn’t understand what the Mediterranean Diet entails, it will be difficult to follow the diet properly,” Margaret Raber, DrPH, an assistant professor of pediatric nutrition at the Baylor College of Medicine and an author of the study, told Verywell in an email. 

This healthy eating pattern generally includes plant-based and minimally-processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. The primary source of fat derives from olive oil, and the overall diet is very low in saturated fats. Fish, dairy, poultry, and wine are included in moderation.

While there are general guidelines, Raber said there isn't one "widely accepted definition" of the Mediterranean Diet in scientific literature. This, combined with TikTok's global popularity, led Raber to conduct her study.

“Since the experts can’t agree on what exactly the Mediterranean Diet entails, we thought some level of consumer confusion was likely," Raber said.

The Mediterranean Diet was developed in the 1940s by physiologist Ancel Keys who led the Seven Countries Study, one of the first studies to observe the impact of diet on cardiovascular health outcomes. Specifically, Keys found that standard dietary practices of populations in Greece and Italy offered heart health benefits, which led him to develop and market the “Mediterranean Diet.”

"Of course, not all foods eaten in Mediterranean countries, and certainly not all foods in U.S. restaurants touting Mediterranean cuisine, are part of this ideal diet. This distinction between concepts gets a bit lost on TikTok," Raber said.

During her research, Raber encountered a number of TikTok posts promoting eating out, red meat, and refined carbohydrates—recommendations that are generally not part of the Mediterranean Diet.

This is not the only misleading nutrition advice on TikTok. The platform is filled with diet and wellness tips that experts say are unnecessary or even harmful, like restricting nutrient-dense foods for "gut healing," and drinking a mixture of balsamic vinegar and flavored sparkling water as a "healthy" alternative to soda.

Turning to TikTok for Nutrition Advice

According to a recent survey of over 1,000 American adults, 50% of respondents said they were more likely to seek out health advice from the internet than from a healthcare professional.

While some TikTok diet trends are harmful, there is helpful nutrition information available on the platform, Raber said. The challenge for TikTok users is to be able to sort through the content and easily identify which posts to trust.

Emily Macek, 24, a category analyst from New York who uses TikTok frequently, told Verywell that she's more likely to trust creators who are registered dietitians. "I know they are educated on the subject matter," she said.

According to Raber's research, health professionals had significantly more followers than non-health professionals.Raber said she was encouraged by the quality of the content shared by these health professionals. In contrast to creators without health-related credentials, health professionals were more likely to cite studies and accurately described the Mediterranean Diet.

More good news, Raber said, is that she didn't see a lot of "extreme" content related to the Mediterranean Diet on TikTok. Her main concern was the "high variability" in the available information which could make it harder for people to follow the healthy eating pattern at home.

Raber acknowledged that Americans will continue to seek out nutrition advice on TikTok and called for "innovative strategies" to help people interpret the misleading information shared on this platform.

"I do think we need to be thinking not just about educating people about healthy eating, but also giving people strategies and tools to help them identify and apply the nutrition information they see online," Raber said.

What This Means For You

You don't necessarily have to avoid all Mediterranean Diet advice on TikTok. This can be a helpful resource for recipes and tips - especially when the content is created by a credentialed healthcare professional. However, before changing your diet, talk to your trusted healthcare provider. They can help you create a plan for your unique goals and lifestyle.

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