If you’ve used YouTube to engage in the incredibly popular lockdown pastimes of learning to cook and trying new workouts, chances are the algorithm has taken notice. If you’ve done both, you have likely seen lifestyle and fitness channels in your recommendations.
YouTube is a great platform to learn new things. The barrier for entry is low. That means people who are experts in niche fields can find a following and spread their knowledge. But it also means that people who are not experts in incredibly important fields can do the same. And when it comes to the topic of diet, that can be a significant cause for concern.
YouTube has some rules regarding food and health claims, but they’re not extensive.
Essentially, you can’t praise eating disorders, and you can’t promote harmful remedies and cures. The examples YouTube guidelines give of content that violates these policies show that the aim is to catch the most extreme cases. For the eating disorder rule, you can’t promote eating things that are not food, and you cant use terms that “glorify” eating disorders in the metadata. Examples of harmful remedies are substances with dangerous side effects. For instance, MMS, an industrial bleach that has been pushed by quacks as a cure for everything from cancer to autism.
These rules are necessary, and the platform is better for having them. But they do not mean that all food and health advice on the platform is safe and accurate. There is a wide gap between a healthy, science-backed diet, and consuming bleach.
The bad diet advice can take many forms.
One problem is the nature of social media. What tends to get attention is not the content that is the most accurate. Instead, things get attention on social media if they are aspirational, appealing, or shocking.
If you’re pretty and skinny, that will help your channel get attention. And people who follow you will often be very keen to know how you got to be so pretty and skinny. The platform is full of attractive young women who have no medical credentials, convincing people to eat like them. Sometimes by posting “What I Eat In A Day” videos that they label as “healthy” or “slimming.” Other times by outright telling viewers to follow their diet plans. These channels promote things like juice cleanses to “detox,” starvation diets, and unregulated diet products.
Want shock value? What’s more shocking than revealing that the scientific community is wrong, and you have the singular secret to health? Or revealing that you have discovered the magic solution that makes weight loss and muscle gain a breeze. The idea that soy products have a feminizing effect on men has a spicy, shocking topic. It gained a significant amount of traction amongst bodybuilding YouTube. It was also complete nonsense.
There is no guarantee that the most popular channels have the most accurate information. And oftentimes the inverse is more likely. A channel could look like they’re promoting a healthy diet. It could be full of fruits and vegetables. The host could sound educated when they talk about what vitamins and minerals they’re getting. But following it could still cause you harm.
Of course, some channels are more reputable than others. But even when a channel is run by a Doctor, Registered Dietitian, or Food scientist, they cannot possibly know what your unique needs are.
So by all means, follow that yummy looking recipe. Try that workout. But don’t let a YouTuber dictate you’re entire food intake to you. If in doubt, it’s always best to talk to a legitimate medical professional who doesn’t have to worry about engagement.