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Many Popular Australian Instagram Accounts Spread Inaccurate Nutrition Information

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A recent study conducted by researchers from Deakin University has revealed concerning levels of misinformation in nutrition-related content posted by influential Australian Instagram accounts. The findings – published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity – indicate that a significant proportion of this content is of poor quality and accuracy, potentially misleading the public on critical health matters.

The study analysed 676 Instagram posts from 47 Australian accounts with more than 100,000 followers each. These posts, which spanned from September 2020 to September 2021, were scrutinised for quality and accuracy using the Principles for Health-Related Information on Social Media (PRHISM) tool and compared against reliable sources such as the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition database.

The results were alarming: 34.8% of the posts were classified as poor quality, 59.2% as mediocre, and only 6.1% as good. No posts were rated as excellent. In terms of accuracy, 44.7% of the assessable posts contained inaccuracies, with 8.6% being completely inaccurate and 14.3% mostly inaccurate.

A key finding of the study was the variation in quality and accuracy based on the type of Instagram account. Posts by nutritionists and dietitians scored significantly higher for both quality and accuracy compared to those by brands and other influencers. Specifically, posts by nutritionists and dietitians were nearly five times more likely to be accurate than those by brands.

In contrast, information about supplements was particularly unreliable. Such posts had lower accuracy scores compared to content on weight loss, sports nutrition, general healthy eating, and foods/nutrients and health. This trend is consistent with existing research showing that supplement-related information is often exaggerated or misleading.

Interestingly, the study found a negative correlation between the quality of information and user engagement. Posts of lower quality tended to receive higher engagement, measured by the total number of likes and comments. This suggests that misleading or sensational content may be more appealing to users, amplifying its spread and impact.

These findings have significant implications for public health communication. The prevalence of low-quality and inaccurate nutrition information on Instagram can undermine public health efforts and contribute to confusion about dietary choices. Misinformation about supplements is particularly concerning given their widespread promotion and use.

Regulatory bodies in Australia have begun to address this issue. For example, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has fined companies for misleading advertising and implemented new rules to curb the promotion of therapeutic goods by influencers. But the study highlights that more comprehensive measures are needed to tackle the root of the problem.

The researchers suggest that social media platforms could play a more active role in regulating health-related content. This could include verifying the qualifications of health professionals, introducing features for easily including references in posts, and promoting content that aligns with public health guidelines.

Health professionals and nutrition experts also have a role to play. They should ensure that their social media content is accurate and of high quality. Professional bodies and institutions could support this by providing media and communications training as part of tertiary education and continuing professional development.

Future research should focus on understanding who is most exposed to and influenced by nutrition misinformation on social media. It is also crucial to develop methods for measuring the severity and potential harm of health misinformation. Further analysis by specific topics, such as paediatric nutrition, could yield valuable insights.

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