Nutrition influencers run the gamut, from conspiracy theorists convinced that grocery shopping is the delicate act of dodging disease to the licensed nutritionist who shares debunking posts. Accounts and opinions proliferate by the hour, all equally earnest and legitimate-seeming. It’s harder and harder to differentiate between the tedious combativeness of science deniers and ethical fact-first takedowns.
The trends that unchecked nutrition influencers set can quickly go viral and correspond to nearly every broad category of nutrition pseudoscience infesting the present-day internet. Arranged on a credibility spectrum that goes from science-adjacent to totally unscientific, these are:
“Scienceploitation.” Canadian health law and policy expert Timothy Caulfield coined this term to explain the enthusiastic adoption and breakneck mainstreaming of legitimate but emergent research for profit. It is most commonly done by companies and wellness investors eager for a first-movers advantage, and often seen with supplement-shillers who exploit the fact that supplements do not go through an approval process by the Food and Drug Administration.
Biohacking. This is championed mostly by Silicon Valley types like tech billionaire Bryan Johnson, who is determined to de-age himself with the aid of obsessive vitals-monitoring, extreme diet modification geared to lower body fat percentage, and beta-stage technology aimed at outperforming regular exercise to deliver peak physique.
CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Positing that the real and perceived inadequacies of conventional medicine need other forms of healing to step in, complementary and alternative medicine (or complementary and integrative medicine) is a controversial field that pushes combined treatment protocols. Acupuncture and yoga are two examples of the alternative half of this complementary approach. Despite World Health Organization recognition and functioning departments in accredited hospitals, critics say that CAM is still not optimally regulated, tends to deepen patients’ resistance to more evidence-based treatments, and is packaged as being more effective than it actually is, especially by buzzy celebrity doctors.
Chemical phobia. This is the belief that all artifice, embodied by the ingredients in mass-produced food, is bad, and that food is either clean and wholesome or loaded with toxins.
We interviewed top nutrition science experts engaged in nutrition education for their views on the most persistent (and dangerous) myths circulating on social media.
1. Misinformation About Processed Foods And Restrictive Eating
An author, gut biome specialist and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, Tim Spector believes that blanket mistrust of processed food makes no sense.
“Processed food is not the issue. Processed foods include cheese, tinned beans and sourdough bread,” he said. “The mistrust is of industrially manufactured ultra-processed foods (UPFs) — or, as I call them, edible foodlike substances. And it certainly is justified. However, it is not surprising that we are attracted to these foods, given their affordable prices, hyperpalatability and convenience. Food companies tap into our desire to be healthier by labeling processed foods with claims such as ‘high protein,’ ‘low in fat,’ ‘low in sugar.’ The use of ‘health halos’ on UPFs is driving us to consume foods that are bad for us, under the guise that they might be good for us.”
He identifies the high-protein bar as a key offender in the UPF category. “These are usually laden with dozens of chemical additives and serve no purpose to nourish us, but disguise themselves as healthy,” he said.
Spector categorically disapproves of restrictive eating. “Consistency is more important than perfection, and no foods should be off the table,” he said. “Calorie counting is not a sustainable approach to maintaining a healthy weight and doesn’t encourage eating good-quality food. Quality of food is more important than calories, and a positive nutrition approach of adding healthy foods to our plate is more sustainable.”
Spector also believes that the act of skipping breakfast isn’t as sacrilegious as it is made out to be. “The evidence now shows that having an overnight fast of at least 12 hours is beneficial for gut health and metabolism, meaning that many of us might skip breakfast and have brunch a bit later and feel better for it,” he said.
2. The Villainization Of Bloating And Whole Grains
“One common myth I often see is that bloating after eating is always due to some food intolerance,” she said. “A little bit of bloating can actually be a sign of a well-fed community of bacteria.”
She cautions against restricting intake on the basis of a good-old food baby. “There are lots of reasons why someone may experience bloating that aren’t necessarily related to food either, so we shouldn’t restrict healthy foods without considering other potential factors,” she said. “Restricting foods unnecessarily can negatively impact someone’s gut health, as well as overall well-being both now and in the future.”
On the topic of foods that she would like to see legislated off retail shelves, she mentioned bread because “it often has unnecessary additives as well as palm oil and sugar, which consumers may not always be aware of” — especially since “there are lots of popular and delicious breads on the shelves that don’t contain these additives, so it seems unnecessary to be adding these things in.”
She said that “no refined sugar” is an overused food label, “despite products often containing things like coconut, nectar and date syrup, which are in fact refined. Despite these sugars being marketed as natural, they still don’t contain compounds like fiber. Therefore, they can have the same impact in our body when it comes to things like raising your blood sugar.”
On the question of what foods and nutrition approaches deserve a revisit, she mentioned whole grains and snacking respectively.
“Many whole grains often get demonized because many contain gluten (wheat, barley, rye),” she said. “However, as long as you don’t have celiac disease, then these can serve as an important part of your diet. Research has shown that people who regularly consume gluten-containing whole grains tend to have better gut health because they contain probiotics as well as other nutritionally beneficial compounds.”
3. The Overuse Of Terms Like ‘Toxic’ And ‘Inflammatory’
U.K.-based Dr. Idrees Mughal’s hugely popular videos on TikTok and Instagram make short work of hucksters in the wellness space. His snappy takedowns of questionable content are packed with peer-review citations and are a master class in debunking. Science literacy has never felt so satisfying to watch.
“Toxic. Inflammatory. Poison. Clean. Detox,” the National Health Service doctor told us, when asked to list language that ticks him off.
“These are all quackery words that have no real meaning. If they knew what a toxin was, they wouldn’t be using it in the context they’re using it. If someone claims that something is inflammatory, I want you to ask them these questions: 1) What does ‘inflammatory’ mean? 2) Which inflammatory cytokines are you proposing are increasing when they do the thing you’re saying? 3) Which part of the body is being affected? 4) What effects are you claiming this has on the body? 5) Where’s the evidence for this? Ask them these questions and watch them squirm.”
Misinformation specialists have an easy tell. “Generally people instill fear in their content in order to get you to buy into whatever narrative they’re selling,” Mughal said. “Absolutist statements such as ‘this is the WORST food’ or ‘the MOST inflammatory thing you can do’ — statements like this make it clear the individual is not aware of the nuance or science that foods can have differing effects on different people. There is no universal ‘worst’ or ‘best’ food for anyone. Someone that claims to have ‘secret knowledge,’ or if they start a video with ‘they don’t want you to know this’ — who is ‘they’? This is classic tinfoil hattery, and no serious academic or health care professional would say things like that.”
Mughal acknowledges that navigating today’s complex information landscape is challenging.
“While many sources are behind paywalls, summaries and overviews of research are often available for free. Websites like PubMed and Google Scholar can be useful. Some researchers also share their work on platforms like ResearchGate,” he said.
“Recognize that everyone, including experts, can have biases. Look for potential conflicts of interest, and always cross-reference information. Also remember that just because something or someone is ‘funded’ doesn’t automatically mean that information is invalid. Research has to be funded from somewhere.”
4. Wildly Unsupported Claims
“You don’t have to be an expert to ask questions,” said London-based Alan Flanagan, who holds a Ph.D. in nutrition from the University of Surrey and founded the consulting firm Alinea Nutrition, adding that questioning is the first thing he encourages laypeople to do. On every platform, including his own, he is relentless about putting the science front and center, and is known for compassionate deep dives on topics most people would flinch from.
“If someone has made a claim, always ask: ‘What is this based on? What evidence supports this claim?’” Flanagan said. “Honest brokers will be happy to demonstrate not only what evidence supports their position, but why it does; grifters often become defensive or fob people off, which is a red flag.”
For those confused by the glut of information online, his advice is to “simply follow national dietary guidelines.”
“Dietary guidelines are also attacked by quacks and grifters, but we have evidence from multiple countries that higher adherence to the characteristics of those dietary pattern recommendations are associated with lower risk of adverse health outcomes,” Flanagan said.
“Grifters sell people the idea that the rise of obesity is because of the dietary guidelines. It’s an absurd claim, and one immediately falsifiable by reference to a simple fact: No one started following the guidelines. Average adherence, whether looking at the U.S. or U.K., is very low. So for most people who are confused by all the noise, this is always my advice: Get off social media and just follow these recommendations.”
Flanagan believes that seed oils, specifically rapeseed or canola, do not deserve a bad rap.
“As a seed oil, it is vilified for purely pseudoscientific reasons, but it has an excellent nutritional profile,” he said. “And the evidence shows it is associated with improved cardiometabolic health markers. The claims about this oil being ‘rancid,’ ‘toxic’ or whatever else are flat out nonsensical.”
He stressed that there is no “enemy food.”
“If there is an enemy, to me it is clearly the purveyors of misinformation that cloud the simple reality that we largely know the characteristics of a dietary pattern associated with good health (e.g., unsaturated fats over saturated fats; whole grain carbs over refined; more of a contribution from plant protein sources; adequate dietary fiber intakes, low sodium intakes),” Flanagan said. “These principles are universal, although we can see regional and cultural differences in how these characteristics are achieved in terms of food.”
He believes that a healthy approach to nourishing oneself is the simplest, most pragmatic one.
“I think we’re all a bit hyperfocused on diet and nutrition right now, and could do with zooming out and reframing the conversation away from such a micromanaged focus on diet. Nutrition is important, but so is social support, stress levels, activity levels, etc.,” Flanagan said. “I think people need to be a bit less myopically focused on some of this stuff. … Just ask how much the micromanaging is costing you, financially, socially, emotionally. Too many people are paying a high price across all of those domains and calling it ‘health.’”
5. The Internet’s Obsession With Protein
Maryland-based Dr. Michael Greger, a founding member and fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, provides impartial nutrition analysis and advice on the platform NutritionFacts.org. His work stands out for being unmediated by vested interests and is a great resource for anyone looking to cut through the clutter of nutrition advice online.
Greger thinks the protein mania is ridiculous. “The obsession with protein is out of control,” he said. “Ninety-seven percent of Americans get enough protein (and most of the 3% who don’t are likely on extreme calorie-restricted diets and just not enough, period). Conversely, 97% of Americans are deficient in fiber (not reaching the recommended daily minimum), and 98% are deficient in potassium. Why don’t we hear about those?”
He started NutritionFacts.org because “it’s the resource I wish I had when I was in medical school. With all the corrupting commercial influences out there, I felt I just needed to bring the peer-reviewed evidence out to the public.”
He believes that those who create and spread misinformation online should be held more accountable. “People need to show their work,” Greger said. “They should share exactly how they arrived at their conclusions. When it comes to something as life-and-death important as nutrition, we should demand to see the evidence. And citing a study isn’t enough. They should show you the study, exactly what they gleaned from it and why, and link to it so people can download it themselves.”
He acknowledged that controversy drives the algorithm, “so I don’t expect ‘broccoli is good for you’ videos to be trending anytime soon,” and that it’s “amazing that people question what may be the greatest consensus in nutrition literature: Eat more fruits and vegetables.”
Greger is emphatic that eating healthy needn’t wreck one’s finances. “The healthiest foods are among the cheapest foods: apples, dried beans, cabbage, sweet potatoes,” he said. “When measured on a cost-per-serving, cost-per-weight or cost-per-nutrition basis, fruits and vegetables beat out meat and junk food. A vegetarian diet would be expected to save about $750 a year.”