Peril of the ‘Instagram diet’

Health and nutrition advice abounds on social media such as Instagram and WhatsApp, but many self-styled experts have no qualifications and their advice may harm you.

Dr Shefali Verma-Johnson says online ‘experts’ bypass key procedures such as checking people’s medical history. Victor Besa for The National
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DUBAI // People trying to get fit and lose weight have been warned against taking advice from unqualified nutrition “experts” on social media.

Much of the online advice from self-styled health gurus is questionable and some is potentially harmful, doctors say.

“Social media is loaded with images that aim to influence, from the vainglorious selfies of beautiful women to self-proclaimed health experts posting daily recipes,” said Medha Nagpal, a nutritionist at the Dubai Herbal Treatment Centre.

“Many people fall for this. Unrealistic ideals and stereotypes not only confuse people but portray a wrong picture of what healthy living is actually all about.”

Dr Shefali Verma-Johnson, a GP, warns that giving advice online bypasses key procedures in dealing with a patient, such as a detailed medical history check.

“Hormones are a vital part of this process, especially in women. Even in men, there are questions that need to be asked, family history, these things are all really important.”

One popular trainer in Dubai, who has almost 13,000 followers on Instagram, encourages people to join her on a three-day juice fast. “Detox juice cleanses are OK and healthy when done once a year,” she advises.

But Dr Verma-Johnson says: “By cutting the usual irritants out of the diet for a few days people will feel better, but it’s temporary: after those three days they’ll go back to normal. They’re avoiding bad foods, not fixing anything. They don’t learn anything from the process.”

There can also be metabolic issues for people with, for example, diabetes, and overgrowths of yeast with the high amounts of sugar often contained in juice fasts.

“I just don’t think we should be advertising this as dieting and in three days you’re just giving people false hope,” Dr Verma-Johnson said.

She said a pattern developed in which a three-day fast became a fallback every time a person felt “fat”, which had the effect of concealing a genuine health issue such as thyroid, hormone or digestive problems. The idea of its being a detox, she said, was “misselling”.

Dr Verma-Johnson also warned against the use of supplements such as fat burners, often recommended by self-styled experts as a way to lose weight.

“A lot of these are a combination of different products that can have adverse effects on someone who already has adrenal dysfunction, which is in itself a reason they may not be able to lose weight,” she said. “Fat burners also have stimulants in them which aren’t good for everyone.”

Images of supplements are frequently promoted alongside models with sculpted physiques, suggesting they can help to achieve a healthy body.

“For people to think all supplements are safe is wrong,” said Dr Verma-Johnson. “People’s absorption and digestion are all different and not all supplements are equal. Even herbal medicine can have side effects. The psychology of patients is different. I may treat two people with the same symptoms differently. If you’re advising someone responsibly, you have to know what to advise if something goes wrong.”

Social media is worryingly influential, especially among young people, said Kay Vosloo-Bodanza, a colon hydrotherapist who has trained in nutrition and naturopathic health and is licensed by Dubai Health Authority. “They live by it, breathe it, believe it.”

One young man offers “expert” advice on WhatsApp on how to adopt a vegan diet. In fact he has no nutrition qualifications, offers the advice “as a hobby” and is a marketing student at university.

Ms Nagpal warns: “Raw vegan meals look fabulous and healthy, and they can be great initially to reduce a certain level of inflammation, but within a couple of weeks they can have the reverse effect.

“Restrictive or yo-yo dieting ultimately ends up in deficiencies and this is where we have complications such as thyroid imbalance, hormonal imbalance and skin problems.”

Max Calderan, an expert in genomics and DNA related nutrition, said awareness was key in a world driven by social media.

“We need to make people aware about the risk of following random advice from anyone regarding our health and nutrition. People must talk with a qualified nutritionist or a coach with qualifications because it is also a matter of responsibility.

“We are only used to seeing fast results such as weight loss but we don’t consider the long-term effects on our body from a physiological and metabolic point of view.”