Let’s be real: You don’t have the bandwidth to read every New York Times best-selling wellness bible or do a deep dive into actual research papers every time you want to learn more about a health condition, upgrade your nutrition, or have an exercise query. Instead, many of us find ourselves getting health and fitness advice on Instagram or even TikTok. And while there are plenty of legitimate experts dropping knowledge on social media, it’s important that scrollers be wary.
“Social media is a great way to connect with others and a place where people can tell their stories, but caution should be given when content includes health advice,” says dietitian Amanda Izquierdo, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N. “Healthcare professionals ground their advice in solid, scientific evidence, which adheres to rigorous standards. Anecdotal evidence from unqualified yet viral social media accounts often exaggerates and misinterprets results.”
This is always important to watch out for—but it feels extra crucial right now given all of the bogus health advice related to COVID-19.
Something else to consider? Even if a social media health influencer is spitting technical facts, it might not be the best advice for you. “Social media can be a tricky place for health advice because ultimately, it’s whittling down advice that should be very personalized into a one-size-fits-all approach,” explains dietitian Sophie Lauver, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Whether your favorite Instagram follow is talking about exercise, hormonal health, nutrition, or COVID-19, the following red flags signal that you should—at the very least—consider their advice with a healthy dose of skepticism.
1. They’re not a credentialed expert
This may seem obvious, but considering how many uncredentialed health gurus have built massive followings, it’s worth reinforcing.
“When looking for nutrition advice online, for example, make sure to research who is behind the recommendations and the social media account,” says Lauver. “Are they a registered dietitian or someone with little training who wants to call themselves a nutritionist?”
Read More: 7 Situations When You Should See A Dietitian
A registered dietitian (R.D.), for instance, has a rigorous education and 2,000 hours of supervision backing the perspective and advice they share. Similarly, a C.P.T. (certified personal trainer) undergoes extensive fitness training to obtain their credentials.
Before you start saving their posts and trying out their nutrition or workout advice, do a little digging to make sure the social media influencer in your feed has dedicated the time and effort required to be labeled an “expert.”
2. They talk in absolutes or strict rules
Blanket statements are a no-no, folks. That’s why Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council, says that a social media influencer who uses absolutes or rules should give you pause. “Any real health or fitness professional understands that the prevailing answer to literally every question about working out or nutrition is ‘it depends’ or ‘what are your goals?’” Wilson says.
When someone says that you “must” do something or “can’t” do something else, Wilson considers it a dead giveaway they’re stuck in a frame of mind “that is the exact opposite of science- or evidence-based.” Plus, since new research is released regularly, trained professionals constantly evaluate new information and evolve their opinions as needed.
Ultimately, anyone with a true understanding of human physiology understands the nuances of how to apply evidence-based interventions to individuals and general populations, Wilson says. In other words, there’s always room for gray area.
3. They rely only on their personal backstory
If someone on social uses overly persuasive or emotional storytelling, watch out, Izquierdo warns. Using lines like “I’ve been struggling with chronic illness for years and this cured me” or touting one magical thing as the single remedy for their condition are major red flags.
If something is scientifically backed, it produces the same results over and over again, so if someone on social media has only anecdotal evidence to back up whatever they’re pushing, take note.
4. They use phrases Like “miracle cure”
Yes, we’d love to eat açai and live to 100, too, but alas, that just isn’t how smoothie bowls work. “A legitimate health professional will never utter sensational phrases. Additionally, extreme words like “cure” should be viewed with skepticism,” says Jenna Greenfield, M.D., medical director at High Tech Health. “The medical field does not generally use the word cure. We treat diseases, we don’t ‘cure’ them. Similar is the phrase ‘prevents cancer.’ We can lower the risk of cancer, not prevent it.”
If your latest Instagram follow seems to be touting magic, don’t be surprised when the illusion fades.
5. They don’t back up their claims with research
If a social media health guru doesn’t or can’t cite their sources, or cites anything other than peer-reviewed scientific research, be wary. “Especially when making claims about new or controversial information, a legitimate health expert will talk about a peer-reviewed scientific study, because this is where they get their information—straight from the science,” says Greenfield.
This is especially common when a social media influencer starts promising certain outcomes or talking in great detail about something really specific. While saying “eat more fruits and vegetables” is often a safe recommendation, saying “eat a banana a day for the rest of your life to fight depression,” for example, is not, Lauver says.
6. They Sell You Hard On Their Own products
Keep in mind that influencers trying to sell a product they’ve created have an agenda when promoting its benefits. The product may be perfectly legitimate, but it’s wise to do your own diligence on the ingredient list and sourcing before heading straight to their personal website with a 25% OFF promo code they provided in their Instagram caption.
It’s a similar story for those who seem to constantly be promoting other brands’ products without divulging they’re getting paid to do so. “Make sure to always look for health professionals who clearly disclose their interests,” Lauver says.
7. They only share information that supports their claims
There’s plenty of nuance (and even conflict) in just about every segment of the health and wellness world—and a trustworthy expert will acknowledge that on their social media platforms.
Instead, though, some may only look for, interpret, and share information that fits the narrative they already believe. (This is known as “confirmation bias.”) An expert that presents both sides of the story is one that truly empowers you to make the best moves for your health; meanwhile, a social media health guru who can’t see beyond their agenda limits you.