PUBLIC HEALTH
May 14, 2019

Beware of Diet Blogs

Weight loss blogs can be uplifting, but the information they offer is often inaccurate and high calorie.

You can find hundreds of blogs dedicated to helping people lose weight. Their popularity is easy to understand: They are often inspiring, funny and offer dieters a place to share their weight loss trials and triumphs. While reading about stories of success or motivational tips may be uplifting, the nutrition and weight management information on the majority of blogs is anything but credible and trustworthy, a recent study finds.

Diet and online nutrition bloggers usually do not have to have any qualifications for the topics they write about. They never received an accredited degree in nutrition or fitness, so it is reasonable to question the accuracy of the information they present. This concern led researchers at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom to look at the credibility and quality of nutritional advice and recipes published on healthy eating and weight management blogs.

The nutrition and weight management information on the majority of blogs is anything but credible and trustworthy.

The researchers identified the most popular and influential weight management blogs published between May and June of 2018. Then they analyzed and rated nine of them against 12 credibility indicators. To be considered an “influencer,” a blogger had to have more than 80,000 followers, an active weight management blog and what's called blue-tick verification — a method used by social media sites to let people know that an account is authentic — on two or more social media sites.

The credibility of content on each blog was scored based on its transparency, trustworthiness and adherence to nutritional criteria, and bias.

The evaluation of transparency was based on a clear identification of the author and any references cited, and the quality of the references cited on the blog was also scored. The researchers also graded a blogger’s qualifications and whether the recipes he or she posted met nutritional standards. Finally, the researchers examined whether the blog distinguished between opinion and fact, advertising and content. The credibility indicators were established as yes and no questions, and 70 percent was set as an acceptable mark to identify the bloggers who met most of the criteria.

The researchers also analyzed the 10 most recent recipes from each blog for their nutrition content, calorie count and adherence to nutritional guidelines in the United Kingdom.

Of the nine blogs evaluated, seven provided advice on nutrition and weight management. Five of the blogs did not provide any evidence-based references for their nutrition claims, or they presented opinion as fact. Five blogs did not provide a disclaimer and only three published recipes that met nutrition guidelines.

Ninety Percent Fail the Credibility Test
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With a score of 83 percent, only one blog passed the credibility test. It was the only blog written by a person with a nutrition degree and registered with the UK Association for Nutrition as a nutritionist. Six blogs scored between 42 and 58 percent, including one run by a medical doctor, a red flag warning that even someone who has a seemingly credible title might not be doing the work necessary to offer accurate nutrition information. The lowest score of 25 percent was earned by a blogger with no nutrition qualifications.

Researchers determined whether the blog adequately differentiated between opinion and fact, advertising and content.

Recipes on the blogs were another area of concern. The recipes on four blogs did not meet nutritional criteria. Only one blog provided nutrition information, and four blogs declared they did not believe in counting calories. Many recipes were so high in calories they could lead someone to overeat if they followed the so-called “healthy” recipes.

If you are looking for dieting advice, the first tip is to be skeptical. “Currently, no standards exist to assess the credibility of influencers' blogs,” researcher, Christina Sabbagh, said in a statement. She would like to see bloggers held to some basic standards. “Given the popularity and impact of social media, all influencers should be required to meet accepted scientifically or medically justified criteria for the provision of weight management advice online.”

In general, nutrition and weight management blogs are not where you want to go for weight management or nutrition advice. Though they may have the best of intentions, bloggers often have not been trained to distinguish opinions from facts for their readers or to do the necessary digging to check the accuracy of the diet information they present. Make accredited sites offered by hospitals or established media outlets written by trained journalists your first stop.

Another way to recognize a credentialed authority on nutrition is by looking for the RD (registered dietitian) or RDN (registered dietitian nutritionist) after a person’s name. These are determined in the U.S. by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the credentialing agency for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The study was presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, Scotland. It has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so its findings should be viewed as preliminary.

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