Influencers as "Wellness Gurus"

The problem with getting (and giving) health advice on Instagram

Hi! Welcome to “good mood food” from Kale Me Maybe’s Carina Wolff. If you don’t already, please be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on future issues!

My rise to “Instagram fame” happened before I could really process it. For the first few years of posting, it was a slow burn. By 2018, I was rapidly growing. I went from about 40,000 followers to 120,000 followers in the course of a year, with no signs of slowing down. I was sharing my recipes and favorite meals, just like I do now, but I was also ranting about health and nutrition. 

I felt confident in my opinions. At the time, I was writing close to 20 articles a week, which meant I was constantly researching and interviewing doctors and dietitians. (Yes, I know 20 articles a week is absurd and doesn’t make for quality journalism. But that’s a whole topic for another day). Instagram stories were a fresh way to communicate my knowledge to my online community, and since I was new to the “public eye,” I didn’t think twice about the flippancy in which I was sharing information.

Because of this, I learned the hard way what happens when you say something misleading as an influencer. Three years later, I’m so glad I did, as that experience changed how I viewed my role as someone with a large following.

The incident in question began when I was asked about sugar in fruit. I can’t remember the exact question, but the follower wanted to know if the large portion of fruit they were eating at breakfast was okay. I answered the question on my story and said something like “Treat fruit like nature’s dessert. Don’t go overboard.”

The messages came flooding in immediately: “Fruit isn’t unhealthy!” “You’re sending such a bad message — unfollow!”

I was shocked. I had never meant to imply that fruit was unhealthy (I obviously don’t believe that, and if you follow me at all you’ll know I don’t vilify any food groups), but despite my intentions, this is how people were perceiving my message. I was getting inundated with angry responses, which only left me frustrated because, of course, I knew fruit wasn’t unhealthy! People were upset, and in retrospect, I completely understand why. I’ll go deeper into the issues with my response further down.

This experience, though difficult to navigate at the time, changed how I view myself as an influencer. It made me cognizant of the way I presented information, and it showed me that those in the wellness space need to tread lightly when sharing health information. 

If I had to guess, I would say most influencers in the wellness space begin with benevolent intentions. They likely start off with the same desire that I had: to help others. Whether it’s because they’re passionate about cooking or because they found a healthy habit that helped them feel better, they want to pass on their knowledge.

An influencer’s intention might also depend on when they started. Nowadays, people can intentionally set out to be Instagram famous, but if they started far back enough, it’s possible they just fell into it, as I did.

When I created Kale Me Maybe, it was 2012. “Influencer” wasn’t even a word yet. Blogs were still all the rage, and Instagram was just coming on to the scene (at that point, I didn’t even know Instagram was a social media site! I just used it to edit my photos). I had zero intentions of gaining a following or making money off of my content — in fact, I didn't even know that this was possible. I started my blog to get a job in journalism out of college. I was a senior, and starting to get interested in food and nutrition, so I wanted to create a portfolio of my work that I could show to prospective employers. I only continued posting because my friends and family were giving me so much positive feedback and learning from what I was sharing.

My friend Emily told me I needed to join Instagram in 2013, and although I resisted at first, it was a game-changer for my blog.  I grew in a way that I could have never imagined — and that kind of reach would likely be much more difficult to attain if I started today in 2021. I can imagine this same phenomenon is likely happening over at TikTok now, with a whole new trove of people who will soon be faced with the same dilemma of grappling with their newfound social fame.

It’s important to remember that before Instagram, most people were getting their health information from their doctors, lifestyle magazines, email chains, or even their local health food store. This information was fairly limited until the internet made it accessible and more mainstream. All of these new wellness tips were novel and enticing, and social media was changing the health landscape. 

Social media has changed a lot since the early 2010s. Suddenly, regular old people like me were beginning to be called on as “experts.” People started taking advice from others whose lives — or even bodies — they envied. And with this new admiration, it seemed like being a “wellness guru” became something people actually set out to become, rather than just accidentally stumbled into. And even worse, people started listening to these wellness gurus so religiously that they started completely discrediting other medical professionals or scientists.

For some people on the outside of all this, it might be unfathomable to try to understand why someone would prefer an uncredentialed Instagram influencer over a professional who spent years of their life getting a PhD in a specific subject. For me, it’s not that hard to make the conceptual leap, especially if you look at where we started years ago.  

For the longest time, mainstream nutrition misled us. We were told we needed to drink three cups of milk a day and eat sugary cereal in the morning in order to get our vitamins — hey, even cigarettes weren’t considered unhealthy at one point. When one day a random person on the Internet clues you into some truth, you start to trust that person. You feel betrayed by everyone else on the outside. You feel like you’ve finally woken up, and you feel inspired to take your health into your own hands. And who's waiting right there to guide you through this? Your new favorite wellness influencer who delivered this groundbreaking information. 

When people started learning about health on the internet, they suddenly felt empowered, and I get that. Learning about alternative medicine for the first time is inspiring. Oftentimes, this new messaging wasn’t coming from doctors or dietitians, which made people trust them all the less (even if that’s unwarranted). People felt lied to, and they believed they had found something better.

On a small scale, with just a handful of wellness gurus dominating the web, this is still dangerous, but less alarming. But as interest in health took off and Instagram exploded, so did the spread of misinformation and the rise of more and more wellness gurus. The tables quickly turned, with bloggers becoming the experts and mainstream health professionals becoming sellouts. The issue became increasingly serious as people’s favorite bloggers started getting more and more things wrong.

This brings me back to the “sugar in fruit” debacle I went through in 2018, a time when I got something wrong. Obviously, there are a lot of problems with my statement, but let’s start at the beginning. First, it’s helpful to include why I answered the follower’s question the way I did. I am very sensitive to sugar, even fruit, which is something that is frustrating to me but that I am mindful of nonetheless. I know that if I ate that much fruit in one sitting, every single day, I would be craving sugar incessantly. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not someone who completely avoids sugar by any means (trust me), I just can’t eat large quantities regularly or the cravings are too intense. But that’s just me.

My personal relationship with sugar shouldn’t have been the only basis for my answer, and this was my first mistake: answering the question (publicly) with only my own experience guiding my “expertise.” It’s totally fine that I don’t eat a lot of fruit at one time, but I shouldn’t put that philosophy on others. My body, my preferences, and my needs are specific to me. I don’t know enough about each of my followers to know how their bodies will react. Not everyone is sensitive to sugar in fruit. Not everyone gets enough nutrients in the rest of their diet to where they would need to limit their fruit. Not everyone needs to eat like me.

The other crucial place I went wrong was being shortsighted in my overall perspective. Someone rightfully pointed out that most people need to be encouraged to eat more fruit, not less. This follower kindly pointed out that most Americans don’t get the recommended serving of fresh fruits and vegetables per day, and that my story was sending the wrong public health message. This was such a good point. I assumed all my followers were in the same position as me:  an upper-middle-class person of privilege, who had access to all types of food and was only being “particular” for my own personal reasons. I didn’t think about my fellow Americans whose diets, lifestyles, and socioeconomic situations differed from mine. Those Americans might need some more fresh produce, including fruit. I was grateful for that insight, and I shared her thoughtful message to my story (although if I was sharing this today, I would still take out my little commentary about going overboard).

This was really my biggest takeaway: I had followers who didn’t mirror me — people in other demographics, people with different life experiences, or even just people in different bodies — and my words and attitude impacted those people too.

It’s easy to just spew out your opinion and think it’s harmless. I often hear, “It’s my page, and I’m just living my life.” But if you’re a health and wellness influencer, and you really claim your goal is to help others, then that’s not helping others. That’s your ego talking. Helping others is listening to other perspectives. Helping others is understanding the wide scope of your influence, even if that’s not what you intended. Helping others is being inclusive, which means not being aggressive with an opinion that is harmful to a person different from you.

I see a lot of people double down on their incorrect, alternative information, and I often wonder why they’re so insistent on sticking to their guns despite being corrected by those who might know better. Like their followers, these influencers have a distrust for mainstream medicine, often because they too were left in the dark for a long time. Many of these people felt empowered when they took over their own health, especially when it comes to those whose ailments were ignored or brushed aside by their primary care doctors. At one point, they found an alternative or natural medicine that worked for them, so they now assume all alternative options or “natural” medicine (whatever that means) is immediately better.

But here’s the real reason I think influencers double down, despite the feedback. When they preach about their version of health, others like and comment on their posts, DM them with praise, and follow them in droves. It’s rewarding, so why would they stop? They feel like they’re doing the good work, standing up for what they believe in and “ignoring the haters.” They’re building their brand. Oftentimes they’ll block people rather than engaging in conversation, under the guise that it’s “protecting their peace.” While I know firsthand how abusive some people can be in direct messages, and I applaud people setting boundaries, I also know the difference between constructive criticism and pure insult. The former is worth considering.

I think it’s important to clear up that there’s nothing inherently wrong with alternative medicine, and mainstream medicine is definitely not without its flaws. There will always be doctors with differing opinions, and the scientific consensus is always changing — we learn more, and we adjust. There’s also nothing wrong with following someone because you enjoy their recipes or like watching their life. But we need to stop taking what everyone says at face value and stop blindly listening to people who don’t have valid credentials. Your favorite influencer might even be right most of the time — just don’t assume it’s all of the time. 

If you’re following a “wellness guru,” be a conscious consumer. A “health coach” who took an online course once is not the same as a medical professional. Pay attention to where the person is getting their info. Follow other doctors, RDs, food scientists, etc. to make sure their claims are getting backed up — or at the very least to hear a variety of perspectives. Not all doctors are dietitians are in cahoots with "Big Pharma" or "Big Agriculture," and many are able to provide nuanced thoughts on the complicated world of medicine and nutrition. Look into people’s backgrounds — do they have a degree in the topic they’re preaching about, how do other people in their field feel about them, are they being clear about the background of the subject they’re covering, are they providing valid sources?

I also don’t think influencers themselves are inherently bad or that they need to keep their mouths shut at all times. Many influencers are artists, activists, and educators. And even if they’re not any of those things, that still doesn’t make them evil. Having a platform can be a powerful thing, as long as you’re listening to other perspectives and not getting power-hungry. The exchange of new ideas is good, but dogmatic thinking is not. We all have the same goal, to help everyone live their best, healthy life, but we can't let our insistence on being revered and infallible prevent us from getting there.

I will never, ever claim to be perfect in these areas. I have said and done things that I have regretted beyond just posting about the sugar in fruit. I know at different points in my career, I got caught up in claims that I later found out to be untrue or referenced a study that was flawed. I’m sure some of my past language was unintentionally hurtful to certain groups of people. I am not claiming to be holier than thou, and I am always open to others letting me know that my actions are having the opposite effect of what I intend. I am also always happy to come forward and correct myself when I’ve learned new information.

But I do tread much more carefully now that I understand how many people I can affect with my Instagram page. I value knowledge and learning too much to stand firm on ideas that have been disproven, are unfounded, or pose a danger to others. I never want that to happen anymore — people’s actual well-being matters to me more than being the “expert.”

If you’re an influencer, it should be pertinent to you to take your platform seriously and cultivate some humility. But consumers also need to stop looking at influencers as the experts without doing their due diligence. 

Understanding why people trust influencers so deeply — and why influencers distrust mainstream medicine so adamantly — is important when it comes to combatting misinformation. It doesn’t excuse it, but it can help lead us to the source of the problem. We can’t control every individual, but what we can do is stay aware of ourselves.

When it comes to learning from the internet, let’s be vigilant as consumers and humble as creators.

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