Social Media Influencers’ Weight Loss Blogs: A Help or a Hindrance?

02 July 2019

by Tina Sabbagh, Policy and Communications Assistant at Obesity Action Scotland

At the end of April, I attended the 26th European Congress on Obesity (ECO), where I presented research that I had undertaken as part of my Master of Medical Science in Human Nutrition degree at the University of Glasgow.

My abstract was included in the ECO press release and I was invited to present it at a press conference; I could not have predicted the scale of the response that followed. It was reported on the front pages of two national newspapers and by almost every major media outlet in the UK. It also spread over social media, and was reported across Europe, Canada, US, South America, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.

So, what was all the fuss about?

Background It seemed to me that ‘social media influencers’ were becoming more visible in the weight loss field. Influencers can shape attitudes and behaviours, and as there is no requirement for them to be qualified, could be spreading misinformation. This could undermine efforts of evidence-based campaigns, e.g., by public health organisations, and in some cases, be harmful. I wanted to assess the credibility of such influencers and their weight management blogs.

What did I do? After identifying nine UK-based influencers that fit the study’s inclusion criteria, I assessed each influencer and blog against twelve credibility indicators, such as, ‘are they adequately qualified?’ or ‘do they provide a disclaimer?’ I also evaluated ten meals from each influencer against Public Health England’s ‘One You’ calorie reduction campaign and the UK Food Standards Agency’s Traffic Light Scheme (2016).

What did I find? Only two of the nine influencers were qualified, and only one had a formal degree in nutrition. This influencer was the only one to pass the checklist. One influencer had a breakfast over 1062kcal and an evening meal over 1500kcal, and in their FAQs stated that this plan would help someone lose weight. Only one provided any calorie or nutritional information. Five influencers failed to provide evidence-based references, whilst five also failed to provide a disclaimer, even after the onset of GDPR.

What are the implications? The results suggest that social media influencers’ weight management blogs are not always credible resources for weight loss and provide implications for policy makers to regulate influencer weight management output. Poor online advice could also have a real effect on weight loss efforts, particularly as recipes may not be as healthy as suggested, portion sizes can be hugely variable, and the public cannot make an informed choice if no nutritional information is provided.

Next steps I am currently working on finalising a manuscript of the research, alongside my co-authors, with the aim to start the publication process as soon as possible. It now seems to have been given a second-wind, and this month I was featured on a TV show that aired across 35 TV channels in the US!