A new study warns that the social media giant TikTok is filled with confusing and wrong information about the heart-healthy, plant-based approach to eating dubbed the Mediterranean diet.
For the study, researchers analyzed 200 videos posted to the platform last August. They were the first to pop up on a search for content tagged #mediterraneandiet. By definition, that tag, or label, suggests the videos are likely to likely contain diet-specific information.
But any of TikTok’s roughly 1 billion users who checked them out would find that less than 1 in 10 included any definition of the term.
And 20% of the posts had no reference to the health aspects of an eating regimen long hailed for its benefits to heart health.
Instead, they focused exclusively on tourism-related topics such as “Mediterranean culture-promoting Greek hotels, Italian restaurants and the like,” noted lead researcher Margaret Raber, of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Fortunately, she said, the dietary information provided was not all bad.
“Nutrition misinformation exists on a spectrum, and a lot of what we found was pretty benign,” Raber said.
Just over half the TikTok posts were shared by individuals who claimed to have some nutritional or medicinal background or expertise, the study found. Such posts, she said, did tend to be more detailed and informative.
“Now, that’s not to say that everyone who claims to be a doctor on TikTok necessarily is,” Raber said. “But we did find that people claiming to be health professionals posted higher-quality information about the Mediterranean diet.”
Overall, many of the posts her team reviewed were “confusing, maybe, but probably not dangerous,” she added.
Raber noted that a previous look at the quality of cancer-related nutrition information available on the social media platform Pinterest “found much more worrisome levels of misinformation and health claims.”
Still, her team found that a lot of the TikToks featured food choices that had little, if anything, to do with a diet that prizes fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains and beans, alongside low to moderate amounts of fish, chicken and dairy.
For example, nearly 7 in 10 TikToks reviewed highlighted red meat, refined carbohydrates, and/or sweets and processed foods, even though the Mediterranean diet discourages consumption of added sugars, refined carbs and/or saturated fats.
The upshot, the researchers said, is that TikTok users who aren’t already well-versed in what the Mediterranean diet is all about might come away from the videos less than well-informed.
“I suggest that people simply approach diet information they find online with critical thinking and awareness,” Raber said. “If diet advice seems extreme, confusing or inconsistent, talk to your doctor about it.”
For high-quality information about disease prevention and control, Raber said the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Diabetes Association are a few nationwide organizations that provide it. A separate study offered guidance to nutrition professionals seeking to use social media to get the word out about healthy eating.
For its part, in 2021 TikTok launched its #FactCheckYourFeed campaign. It’s aimed at pointing users away from diet misinformation and towards reputable sources, such as the British Dietetic Association and a number of nutritionists vetted as being reliable sources of dietary advice.
“It is really important to us that our users feel that they have access to the right support and advice when it comes to diet and exercise information online,” TikTok said in a statement at the time of the launch.
Lona Sandon, program director in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, was not surprised by the findings of the new study.
“The internet and social media is wrought with nutrition misinformation — it always has been,” said Sandon, who was not involved in the study.
“What I do find alarming is that over half of these posters claimed to be health professionals of some kind, yet nearly 70% of posters provided incorrect information and only 9% defined the diet,” she said. “That means there are a lot of health professionals out there spreading nutrition misinformation.”
Since most health professions do not require nutrition training, this is concerning, Sandon said. She noted that researchers did not specify what credentials those claiming to be health professionals actually had.
In addition to the trusted sources highlighted by Raber, Sandon said anyone searching for nutrition information online should seek out advice shared by registered dietitian/nutritionists “for greater assurance that the information provided is truthful and based on nutrition science.”
Raber is scheduled to present the findings Tuesday at an online meeting of the American Society for Nutrition. Studies presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The American Heart Association has more about the Mediterranean diet.
SOURCES: Margaret Raber, DrPH, MPH, assistant professor, Children’s Nutrition Research Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, LD, program director and associate professor, clinical nutrition, School of Health Professions, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; American Society for Nutrition meeting, June 14-16, 2022