This week, the National Osteoporosis Society released research warning that so-called “clean eating trends” that cut out major food groups, such as dairy, gluten, and refined sugars, could jeopardize the health of young people.
The NSO surveyed 2,000 adults, and found that four in ten 18 to 24-year-olds have tried dieting. 20 percent of them had either cut out or restricted their intake of dairy, severely limiting their calcium intake. This age group was also the most likely to receive their nutritional information from social media. The NOS now believes that these dietary trends are putting this generation at a greater risk for developing osteoporosis.
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The problem could be that many young people who try these diets aren’t doing their research through reliable, accredited sources. They’re just looking at photos on social media and trying to imitate what they see without consulting any professional sources about what is right for their specific bodies.
Ever since food has become a regular feature on social media platforms, concerns that people’s health will suffer have followed. Yet some experts believe social media isn't entirely to blame.
Nikki Ostrower, who founded NAO Nutrition after recovering from a series of eating disorders, thinks that a culture preoccupied with dieting is the real issue.
"We've always been obsessed with dieting," she told me. "Diets, whether in infomercials or in books, have been around forever."
While Ostower agrees that "social media is an easy [place] to get lost in compare and despair," she thinks addressing unhealthy teen behavior has to go beyond regulating their use of social media.
"Parents are giving their kids control over their phones, and while technology can be addictive and exhausting, I don't think that's the problem. We were never given tools to build confidence and self-esteem," she said.
She recommends meditation, positive affirmation, yoga, and of course, the advice of a medical professional.
But until more people are willing adopt Ostrower's methods, and consult a professional when trying to change their diets, social media will be a looming threat to our health. There's been plenty of research in the past to show the dangerous effect social media fad diets can have on young people in particular.
Back in 2014, Elle reported on the dangers of social media-driven diet crazes.
“There's just so much information out there that I think it's become confusing for people to wade through it and figure out what is actually a truly holistic, healthy approach versus this obsession with comparing and the weight-focused discussions,” Claire Mysko, director of the National Eating Disorders Association told the magazine.
And a 2015 Rutgers study tried to combat the sea of misinformation floating around the internet about healthy eating: The authors wrote that “some [information] is blatantly misleading and questionable,” and outlined tips on how to identity reliable sources for nutritional data. They suggested making “sure the author(s) have the appropriate education and qualifications to share information on apps, blogs and websites. If social media does not meet these requirements, then search for sites or apps that can be considered peer reviewed and accurate. Social media needs to be more than just quick and efficient.”
And last year, the Guardian spoke with a nutritionist named Rhiannon Lambert who is increasingly encountering a condition called orthorexia—a term coined in 1997 for a “fixation with righteous eating” (it’s still not considered an official clinical diagnosis).
“Young people lose sleep over this and cannot afford the lifestyle needed to maintain it,” Lambert said. “Health bloggers can be unqualified and offer dangerous advice…They often give advice on clean eating with no scientific backing.”
Self styled wellness gurus have taken over social media. Freelee the Banana Girl (real name Leanne Ratcliffe) shot to fame on YouTube for her extreme vegan diet—she eats 50 bananas a day—but quickly faced backlash for her incendiary, and unscientific, opinions on how to stay healthy. Celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Kylie Jenner have been promoting teatoxes on their Instagram accounts as a method of weight loss. Teen Vogue outed these teas as bogus – they merely contain an FDA approved laxative called Senna that will empty you out, but not actually lower your weight.
But even though they've been debunked, detoxing trends still have more than eight million posts on Instagram, and Ostrower warns that none of them are a one-size-fits-all miracle cure.
"Detoxing is very serious. We want to monitor that. Everyone needs a different cleanse. It might not always be a juice. It could be a whole foods cleanse," she said.
The moral here? When it comes healthy eating you shouldn't put too much stock in what you see come across your Instagram and Twitter feeds—unless it's from a licensed professional.