August 12, 2022


Health for a better future

Popular and Dangerous Social Media Diet Trends

Doctors, public health organizations and registered dietitians have been telling people for decades that what you eat and how much you weigh is incredibly important. However, what it is you’re actually supposed to eat is constantly changing and new diet trends – for that all-elusive weight loss – incessantly emerge.

Pouring a freshly made healthy green smoothie drink at home in the kitchen, close up.

(Getty Images)

More recently, social media has put the diet-related information available to the public on steroids, allowing influencers, self-proclaimed health coaches and even your next-door neighbor to start diet trends that may be both compelling and full of crap.

In nearly 25 years as a researcher focused on the psychology of eating and body image, I must think, “I’ve seen it all now,” at least once a month. Then another trend surprises me. And make no mistake about it, the majority of what is presented as health and diet information is nothing more than a trend, fad or even just public fascination with what we all wish were true about how the world works.

Instead of the accurate information that you may go searching for online, you can easily find yourself bombarded with contradictory messaging, compelling fads and downright inaccurate – and even dangerous – instructions for what to eat and how to lose weight.

The worst part of the over-availability of diet-related information online is that it can be difficult to determine whether information is helpful and at least loosely based on science or an idea that could cause serious harm.

Below are a few recent trends, along with an explanation of why they won’t magically improve your health or help you to lose weight. Some are to be avoided at all costs, while others are relatively benign.

The Benign

Celery Juice and Juicing
Juicing – otherwise known as “drinking juice” – has been around forever. The more recent trend has to do with an emphasis on making your own fresh juice and/or drinking juice instead of solids or drinking it in ritualized ways. For example, celery juice devotees believe it should be consumed first thing in the morning, 30 minutes before solid food is consumed.

Drinking juice is pretty harmless as far as trends go, as long as you understand what you’re consuming. There is no juice I know of that produces magical or even medicinal effects. If you hear otherwise, you’re not hearing from evidence-based sources.

In fact, the celery juice trend appears to be a result of the promotional work of Anthony Williams, the “Medical Medium®.” He’s not a doctor nor a dietitian, but claims to connect with “Spirit of Compassion” to learn medical information.

Juice may be a nutritious contributor to your diet, so long as you avoid an excess of juices high in sugar. But, typically solid fruits or vegetables – whether it’s celery, apples or cranberries – may actually be more nutritious because juicing tends to remove the fiber that benefits gastrointestinal health.

Chlorophyll Water and Supplements
Millions of dollars have been spent on chlorophyll water in the last year. It’s the same chlorophyll you remember from science classes as a kid; it absorbs sunlight and makes leaves green. It’s also one of the latest dietary trends because it’s thought to have antioxidant properties and health benefits ranging from improving acne to boosting weight loss to cancer prevention.

There’s little science behind these claims; it seems that a big leap has been made from “it’s good to eat green vegetables” to “chlorophyll is good for you.” In fact, chlorophyll products actually contain chlorophyllin (a derivative of chlorophyll) because when chlorophyll is removed from plants it becomes unstable and isn’t easily preserved or absorbed by the body.

Is there any harm in taking chlorophyll supplements or drinking chlorophyll water? Probably not, although some people report nausea and diarrhea afterwards. It’s just unlikely to do much good and may be cheaper and more easily attained from eating fruits and vegetables. Plus, I suspect salads taste better.

I have to admit, I’ve never tried kombucha, but I’ve always thought that the name sounds like some sort of fun alcoholic punch that should come in a fancy glass with a mini umbrella. It turns out that there can be alcohol involved, but most people drink kombucha hoping to boost their immune system, improve digestion or cure ills ranging from anxiety to cancer.

Often regarded as a “functional food” – a food or beverage with health-improving benefits beyond nutritional value – kombucha is actually a combination of black or green tea and sugar, which allows for the fermentation of bacteria and yeast. Scientists have only recently paid attention to the potential benefits of kombucha for humans, but speculation about its antioxidant and probiotic properties abound.

Fermentation time, the type of tea used, any flavors incorporated for taste and even the storage container used can change the chemical make-up of kombucha, making it difficult to draw general conclusions about any potential health benefits of kombucha. In sum, it seems too soon to say that it actually improves health beyond being a placebo effect.

It’s also important to note that kombucha contains alcohol. Typically, the amount of alcohol in kombucha is nominal (therefore, not subject to regulation). However, in quality control tests, the amount of alcohol found in some brands is comparable to that found in a beer, making consumption not advisable for those with a history of addiction or under legal drinking age.

The later may not be a problem, given that when I asked my 14-year-old daughter, who’s typically more on top of popular culture than I am, what she knows about kombucha, her response was simple: “It tastes disgusting.”

The Barbaric

DentalSlim Diet Control
When the dental slim diet control device went public last month, I had colleagues, friends and former students emailing and messaging me about it. The images available online are disturbing and caused quite a stir.

This device is intended to essentially lock users mouth shut enough to make consumption of solid foods impossible. Like its predecessor, wiring of the jaw, which was briefly popular in the 70s and 80s, it offers a severe approach for people experiencing a desperate desire to eat less (or only liquids) and lose weight.

The Academy for Eating Disorders, an organization comprised of medical and psychological practitioners, recently put out a statement condemning the DentalSlim device. They pointed out that DentalSlim and very low-calorie, liquid diets do not offer a new approach to weight loss.

In fact, it’s an approach that has been tried by many people over many years and which research consistently suggests to be ineffective. Restricting caloric intake will result in weight loss in the short term, but in order to stay both healthy and alive, we must eat an adequate amount (which varies from person to person). Severe restriction tends to lead to binging and weight gain over time, not sustained weight loss.

The research provided as support for DentalSlim is quite slim itself. A study of seven participants who reported discomfort and decreased quality of life while in the study is not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. Further, a follow-up of just two weeks is hardly enough time to declare weight loss success.

The Tapeworm Diet
The tapeworm diet has been mentioned in the popular media of the time for over 200 years. It seems to offer what many of us wish was possible: eating whatever we’d like while still losing weight. It also offers a high likelihood of symptoms including gastrointestinal distress, bacterial infections, neurological impairment, organ failure and even death. It turns out that ingesting a tapeworm is a pretty terrible idea.

Actually, tapeworm eggs are what have allegedly been sold as a dieting aid. There seems to be some debate as to whether or not real tapeworm eggs were first sold in the Victorian era or whether placebos were packaged as the tapeworm diet, but the trend has emerged today on Tik Tok.

It may not be an oversimplification to suggest that any health or wellness trend presented on Tik Tok should be ignored or at least verified with a medical professional. This is most definitely true of the tapeworm diet, which may be one of the worst diet ideas ever conceived of; an infection that can kill you is not a “diet” as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve always been fascinated by others’ eating habits and appreciate the appeal of the #WhatIEatInADay posts and videos that have become popular on social media. If you follow these online, you may wonder why I’ve categorized them in the “barbaric” section of diet trends.

Admittedly, barbaric may not be the best descriptor, and I have not been able to find empirical research that examines the #WhatIEatInADay trend and declares it unequivocally dangerous. But, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that this trend is toxic.

What I eat in a day videos and posts tend to appeal to vulnerable viewers, in particular young people and people with eating disorders or other health concerns. They showcase orthorexic eating habits, “clean” and organic eating, and highly restrictive routines in terms of both portion size and types of foods consumed.

What they all too often do is teach people how to develop maladaptive and even disordered eating. Self-proclaimed experts, who are rarely actually experts in anything pertaining to food, preach to millions of followers on social media and can do tremendous harm along the way.

#WhatIEatInADay preys on people’s desperation and confusion about what they should eat. Most of us would like an instruction manual about not only what we should eat, but all the other things we should do to achieve health and immortality. But this manual doesn’t exist because our individual needs and vulnerabilities can’t be addressed by one easy-to-follow set of rules. Doing what someone else is doing –with some evidence of success – seems like a reasonable approach, except that it rarely is.

If you want to protect your health, there is evidence that your dietary habits matter. Where you look for information also matters a great deal. And, no degree of magical thinking is likely to work; if a trend seems to good to be true or potentially dangerous it probably is.