More than 60 per cent of Instagram's 100 most popular “fitfluencers” have shared content deemed scientifically unhealthy with their followers, according to research.
Their messages promote unrealistic and potentially dangerous ways of achieving a “healthy” body, claimed the report published in BMC Public Health in May.
Social media has changed the landscape of exercise, with more than 100 million posts on Instagram using the hashtag #Fitspiration – a favourite of content creators to engage followers and motivate them to move.
Although some influencers offer science-backed information, many rely on sensationalism for the sake of gaining more followers.
To that end, The National speak to experts including nutritionists, fitness instructors and physiotherapists to debunk the common myths they come across around diet, exercise and recovery.
Myth: don't eat carbs if you want to lose weight
Fact: carbohydrates are the best source of energy and, hence, recovery.
“It's essential to understand that weight gain is primarily determined by the balance between calories consumed and calories expended,” says Natassia D Souza, a nutritionist in Dubai who specialises in emotional eating and sustainable weight loss.
She explains how carbohydrates are not “inherently fattening”, as some diet content creators would have their followers believe.
“Carbohydrates are a crucial source of energy for the body, especially for the brain and muscles,” she adds. "They are also rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, which are essential for overall health. Avoiding carbs entirely can lead to nutrient deficiencies and energy fluctuations."
Dr Nasrulla Jakhrani, an internal medicine specialist at Aster Clinic in Bur Dubai, explains how food rich in carbohydrates can help people get through “exercise and days of work”, adding they play a “vital role in providing instant energy as well as protecting you from serious injuries”.
Instead, it is the overconsumption of refined carbohydrates (think cereal, white flour and processed foods such as crisps) that could be detrimental, says nutritionist Mitun De Sarkar, who suggests getting your carb intake from whole grains, beans, lentils fruits and vegetables.
“Research consistently supports the inclusion of healthy carbohydrates in a balanced diet,” she says.
D Souza adds: “Balancing your carb intake with protein and healthy fats can help control hunger and maintain a steady energy level throughout the day.”
Myth: keto is the most effective diet
Fact: more research is needed to ascertain its true health impact.
The ketogenic diet is one of the most popular dieting methods on social media, but De Sarkar says “its effectiveness for weight loss is often overstated and misunderstood”.
The low-carb, high-fat diet is meant to induce a state of ketosis in the body, which the Dubai nutritionist describes as a “metabolic state that is thought to enhance fat burning, leading to rapid weight loss”.
One of the biggest problems about this narrative, she says, is its sustainability, and what actually happens to people who follow it.
“The weight loss initially is primarily due to water loss as the body's glycogen stores are depleted and its effectiveness long-term is questionable,” she says.
“One may just stop losing weight after a few weeks and if the diet is continued it can potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies, gastrointestinal discomfort, increased cholesterol levels, and many other negative health consequences.”
Myth: be in complete rest mode on recovery days
Fact: moving around helps in recovery.
While resting is crucial for recovery, Adil Dhaloo, a fitness coach in Dubai, says light activities such as walking and gentle stretching can better aid recovery by promoting blood circulation.
Muscle fatigue can occur after exercise, lasting from a few minutes to a few days. However, research points to the benefits of “active recovery”, where people still work muscle groups even after an intense workout.
Some activities to consider on recovery days include light bouts of swimming, yoga and cycling.
Myth: exercise can make up for a bad diet
Fact: the nutritional value of food is most crucial for well-being.
Physical activities, be it cardio or strength training, go hand in hand with food intake, says Mohammad Adeel Abbasi, a physiotherapist at Aster Clinic Bur Dubai.
He says diet and nutrition play an even more crucial role in weight management and preventing other health issues. Quoting Carol Harrison, a physiotherapist at the MD Anderson Centre in the US, Abbasi says there are nutrients derived from certain foods that can never be replaced by any amount of physical activity.
Myth: spot targeting burns fat in specific areas of the body
Fact: you cannot control which part of your body burns the most fat.
“The body will burn fat anywhere, not just the part you are working on,” says Abbasi. This is echoed by Dhaloo, who says fat loss occurs throughout the body, as it starts to use it as fuel during exercise.
Fat loss is “primarily influenced by overall diet and exercise, not spot targeting”, adds Dhaloo.