The alarming amount of misinformation on TikTok is nothing new.
TikTok doesn’t have any guidelines for who you can identify as on the app or any requirements to include information to back up statements, so plenty of uneducated and unqualified people present misinformation as fact to millions of people on the platform. We know this. But many users take TikTokers at face value and use amateur videos to shape their education, rather than investigating the authenticity of the TikTokers in the first place.
Misinformation is particularly prevalent within the health and wellness space on TikTok — especially when it comes to food and nutrition. A study from the University of Mississippi found that college students, when presented with a series of TikTok and Instagram posts about nutrition, were mostly unable to identify which posts were false. Female students, in particular, misidentified more fake posts as factual.
A national survey found that most adults did not have a media literacy education while growing up. Media literacy, which is the process of critically analyzing information found on the internet, is crucial in helping TikTok users — particularly those who are most vulnerable — stay alert and on top of misinformation.
But to get to understand how to sift through misinformation on health and nutrition, first we need to understand why this is such a big problem in the wellness space.
Why are there so many self-identified “wellness gurus” on TikTok?
Dr. Idz, who has a master’s degree in nutritional research in addition to his medical license, started replying to and debunking some of these wellness videos when he joined TikTok in early 2021. He currently has more than 1.5 million followers on the platform.
“This is actually only applicable to the wellness industry, and that is because you won’t find it in any other subject matter, whether it’s science, geography or whatever, you won’t find it,” he said about misinformation. “You’re not going to find someone — who isn’t an engineer — make a video about, oh, this is the best way to build a skyscraper.”
The reason, Dr. Idz argued, is simply that everyone eats, and most people have anecdotal evidence of what works and doesn’t work for them. The problem is, they’re presenting it as a universal fact.
“They think just because they partake in [eating, stress and sleeping], they then have authority in that field, which is absolutely false,” he continued. “Are you a doctor? Are you a gastroenterologist? Are you a dietitian? No, you’re not any of those things.”
There is also an abundance of quick, cheap online courses that offer “unregulated, unprofessional qualifications” in food and wellness spaces.
“You won’t find a two-week online engineering course to build your own house,” Dr. Idz pointed out, “but you will find that for nutrition, wellness and gut health.”
The wellness market is projected to be worth $7 trillion by 2025 — with the two fastest-growing subsections being personal care and beauty (worth $955 billion in 2020) and nutrition and weight loss (worth $946 billion in 2020). Wellness misinformation can be difficult to spot, especially when a lot of TikTok users are actively pursuing more information. Even though skepticism surrounding Kardashian-approved detox teas and other celebrity endorsements has increased, as more regular TikTok users, especially with larger followings, start promoting their wellness tips as facts, it becomes harder for the average user to differentiate who is qualified.
Another problem is that people are too quick to dismiss TikTok as “just a dance app” to take the lack of media literacy seriously. Abbie Richards, who studies disinformation on TikTok, corrected the notion and told the Washington Post, “We’re talking about a platform that’s shaping how a whole generation is learning to perceive the world.”
How can you, an average user, figure out what’s misinformation on wellness TikTok?
For Dr. Idz, he encourages followers to develop, what he calls “a bullshit radar.” Developing it doesn’t require a degree, a two-week crash course or even additional research — according to Dr. Idz, there are similarities across accounts spreading misinformation that the average TikTok user can look out for before taking the content at face value.
“Number one is, is the person accredited and credentialed to talk about this space?” he asked. “I don’t mean online [credits]; I mean, university graduates in the specific space.”
If the person isn’t accredited, that isn’t an automatic reason to assume they don’t know what they’re talking about. But it’s a factor to keep in mind when listening to their advice.
“Number two, do they openly engage in scientific discourse in their comments?” Dr. Idz continued. “I’m not saying that everyone needs to reference papers every single time they speak. What I’m saying is if someone asks for evidence or someone asks for a citation, if they become defensive and don’t provide it, then that will trigger a red flag for me.”
For sources, Dr. Idz is also looking for medical journals, not, say, an article from a health magazine.
“Number three, do they speak in absolutes?” he asked. “If they speak in absolutes, they are most likely talking nonsense.”
According to Dr. Idz, videos framed as “This is the best thing you can do for your health” or “This is the most inflammatory food in the world today” exclude a lot of information and nuance that could prove these definitive statements false.
“Even though I know that having a certain diet, for example, would benefit people with inflammation, I’m never going to say this is the best diet for reducing inflammation,” he explained.
What is the worst that can happen if you believe health and wellness misinformation on TikTok?
“Trends” like intermittent fasting, #whatIeatinaday videos and carnivore diets go against TikTok’s community guidelines that prohibit “content that promotes eating habits that are likely to cause adverse health outcomes.” Regardless, they still exist and rack up millions of views.
The carnivore diet, in particular, is seemingly the bane of Dr. Idz’s existence.
“I would say currently it may not be the biggest [trend], but it definitely has been one of the most influential in its negative implications,” he said.
The diet is restrictive and plant-free and, as the name suggests, encourages participants to exclusively eat animal products.
“It is probably the most damaging trend in the wellness space that we have right now,” Dr. Idz noted. “There’s no human evidence to actually back up what they’re saying, because time and time again, [vegetables] actually improve our health.”
Based on what Dr. Idz has seen on TikTok, a common misconception about the carnivore diet is that influencers are calling a nutrient found in plants and vegetables “toxic.” Dr. Idz says a small percentage of people can find short-term relief from stomach issues by temporarily removing plants, vegetables and seeds from their diets, but it doesn’t mean that’s the answer nor is that the solution for everyone. In fact, eliminating plants, vegetables and seeds lowers the stomach’s ability to grow bacteria for a healthy microbiome.
“Yes, if you want to have a diet that is strictly devoid of any vegetables, then, yes, your gut symptoms might be better,” he explained. “But actually the moment you eat something wrong, you’re going to be far worse off than if you develop the time to cultivate the bacteria [from vegetables] that we all need.”
Ultimately, to get proper and accurate health and wellness advice, it’s best to see a professional doctor.
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