Study shows social media’s negative effect on nutritional choices, habits in URI students

URI Nutrition student’s study shows even those with better information can be influenced by potentially inaccurate health-themed posts

Social media has an unavoidable influence on our daily lives, especially among college-age students, and is a significant—but not always accurate—source of information on basically every topic imaginable. That includes information centered around health, exercise and nutrition, which can prove particularly damaging, especially to younger people, as a URI Nutrition student’s study recently highlighted.

While the virtual communities social media creates can serve to connect people like never before, it too often may divide and ostracize people, damaging their self-esteem and making them feel less than the supposedly glamorous posters they follow. While there is research highlighting social media’s adverse impact on self-esteem and self-love, there is a gap in examining the intersection of social media and eating choices, patterns and habits among college students, according to first-year General Nutrition student Emma Cotter.

“A lot of what’s out there in social media isn’t backed by research, but a lot of people are influenced by it anyway and make decisions to either add food or cut certain foods,” Cotter said. “There are a lot of ‘What I eat in a day’ posts, which aren’t even what people should eat. Plus, there are a lot of drinks and products marketed that can be put out there without proper information. There are a lot of influencers without any nutritional background working with companies to promote products without understanding the effect of what promoting these products does.”

Cotter set out to determine how impactful nutrition-related social media posts are on college students. She polled 100 fellow first-year nutrition students on their social media use, and specifically how posts on food, nutrition and exercise affect them. She found that “sports,” “nutrition” and “fitness” were among the most common themes respondents search for on social media. More than 70 percent reported regularly seeing nutrition themes in their news feed, listening to “food swap” advice, and watching videos like “What I Eat in a Day” posted by “influencers” who may or may not have any knowledge of what they are promoting.

“They can be more influential because they have a big following,” Cotter said of the social media celebrities who are often paid to provide advice and suggestions to their followers. “There are a lot of fitness trends that correspond with the nutritional trends: ‘Eat this to look like this,’ or ‘Don’t eat this to look like this.’ That can be detrimental to people who don’t have a nutritional background. It’s dangerous both physically and mentally. There is a lot of shame and guilt surrounding eating and what our food choices are.”

Even posts that may appear to provide positive advice on the surface—such as “swap posts” that recommend alternatives to satisfy that sweet tooth—can be physically and mentally damaging, according to Nutrition and Food Sciences Clinical Assistant Professor Amanda Missimer, who is mentoring Cotter in her study. So can fad diets like Paleo or Keto, which may appear to have positive effects, but could be sapping your body of key nutrients.

“There is no one-size-fits-all dietary pattern, sorry to report. You cannot compare what someone else needs and eats in a day to what you need to eat in a day,” Missimer said. “Fad diets are posted at an alarming rate. Every other week, we’re eating something new, we’re cutting something out, we’re following something insane. The posts related to those topics can be dangerous because they make people think they have to replicate exactly what that person is doing to get the same results, which is just not true.”

There can be mental distress that may come with the pressure of following social media nutrition influencers, and associated feelings of guilt that can come from failing to maintain such a strict regimen, Cotter said. And those feelings don’t immediately dissipate. Cotter’s study determined that 58 percent of survey respondents “often” or “sometimes” recall a nutrition-themed post throughout the day, and more than half find themselves comparing their diets to those of influencers they follow. About half reported adding or subtracting foods from their diet specifically because of a social media post, and 48 percent reported feeling judged or criticized about their food choices.

“They might feel like ‘I don’t look like this because I’m not eating that,’ or maybe ‘I don’t feel great because I chose a bag of chips today,’” Cotter said. “It’s sometimes hard to admit someone else is influencing you, and individuals may be unaware that the choices they are making are not always their own.”

Being aware of the dietary choices you’re making can be daunting, but reminding yourself that all foods—yes, even candy and chips—have a place in a healthy dietary pattern, Missimer said.

The pervasiveness of social media is such that even students with a nutritional background can be influenced by people who know less than them on the subject.

“Unfortunately, the stuff like we say in class is not always sexy information,” Missimer said. “What’s sexy about eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains? Nothing. Now if I get on social media and start ranting about these alternative ‘health Pringle-equivalents’ I found, people will listen. Not many people want to hear that fruits and vegetables are healthy. They want changes now, and it’s the quick fixes that are dangerous.”

Those without specific knowledge may be even more susceptible. Cotter recommends social media users—and internet users in general—carefully scrutinize the sources of their information, leaning more toward websites with .edu or .org suffixes that tend to be more credible than many .coms or the first hit on Google. Review credentials of the individuals talking, and look for a registered dietician credential, as these professionals are skilled in translating nutrition science recommendations to individuals and the general public. Be aware of nutrition red flags like commends to “cut this out” or rules like “only eat this.”

“The study shows there’s definitely a connection between social media, and people’s diets and nutritional choices,” Cotter said. “Even with people who do actively think about nutrition every day, we found social media still affects them. It’s important to be conscious of how much screentime you’re engaging in and always analyze what you’re seeing or reading. It’s difficult to eliminate it altogether, but you want to limit your exposure to harmful educators. Be more critical about your usage and what you’re following.”

Emma Cotter is a first-year dietetics major in the Department of Nutrition and completed the survey as part of a team in a Field Experience in Nutrition experiential learning course. Missimer is a clinical assistant professor on the department, and oversees the trustworthy nutrition communications created by students on the URI Nutrition social media channels @urinutrition and @rhyodysportsnutrition.