Are Instagram diet fads like clean eating and intermittent fasting good for you?

  • Fitness personalities on social media sites like YouTube often give diet and nutrition advice based off personal experiences or made-up information
  • Registered Hong Kong dietician Michelle Lau warns that many of these trendy weight-loss ideas can be taken to the extreme
Doris Wai |
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Instagram is full of nutrition, fitness and diet advice - but how accurate and healthy is it?

Many of us are familiar with fitness gurus posting photos on social media of their gym-tight abs, promoting clean eating and foolproof diets, but do such food trends really lead to a healthier life? Young Post spoke to Michelle Lau, a registered dietitian, and founder of nutrition consultancy Nutrilicious, to find out how such diets might just backfire.

Lau cautions that while quick-fix fad diets such as clean eating and intermittent fasting seem to be quick and easy ways to get that “perfect body”, that doesn’t mean they are good for you.

She explains that “clean eating” is a phrase created by social media with no scientific basis. It plays into common guilt traps we have about eating regular food.

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Some people even resort to removing entire food groups from their diet in order to “eat clean”, which can lead to health issues and eating disorders. 

“Eating clean simply means eating well, and that means consuming whole, unprocessed foods, and plenty of fresh  fruit and vegetables,” Lau says. But people can misinterpret that idea. For example, she says some “are under the misconception that they can only eat raw food, which is simply not true. In fact, cooking foods such as tomatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes can increase the [bio]availability of nutrients, for example, beta-carotene, which increases our body’s absorption of nutrients.”

Intermittent fasting has also seen a recent surge in popularity. According to Lau, this “diet” promoted by many fitness YouTubers and celebrities can be easily taken to the extreme, especially by young people who are looking for an instant weight loss hack. 

Michelle Lau, registered dietitian and founder of HK-based nutrition consultancy Nutrilicious, warned readers not to trust everything you see on Instagram. Photo: Instagram

“There are different variations of these diets, with the more popular ones being the 16/8 diet [eating only during an eight-hour window and fasting for the remaining 16 hours], and the 5-2 diet where five days of the week are normal eating days, while the other two restrict calorie [intake] to 500-600 per day.”

Lau is concerned that these self-proclaimed health experts recommend such diets when they are not qualified to give nutrition advice. More often than not, they are simply making up information or giving advice based on their personal experiences. 

She adds: “There is no mention in these IG posts of when one should start fasting, and what sort of food they should avoid. There’s also a lack of [information] on social media platforms on what to eat to make up for the loss of nutrients during fasting. Blindly following the diets endorsed by such influencers can end up wrecking your health.”

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Lau warns that it is unrealistic to lose 1kg a week, and certainly almost impossible to lose 10kg in a month, as some influencers suggest can happen on their diets. 

“This sort of drastic weight loss will usually require the support of a team of health care professionals or ... bariatric surgery. 

“Also, these posts often advocate eating mainly one type of food, such as [Australian YouTuber] Leanne Ratcliffe’s banana diet. Of course, that’s not recommended because you are taking away all the other food groups and nutrients.”

Lau also said some social media diets can perpetuate unhealthy beliefs about food and body image. 

Many Instagram fitness personalities post photogenic meals without showing their nutrition information, or promote drastic weight loss methods that can be especially dangerous for teenagers.

“A lot of these fitness personalities post Instagrammable meals and recipes without showing their nutritional information. And because of how social media works – the algorithm feeds users the sort of information they would like to see based on their search results – unproven diet fads like Ratcliffe’s ... who swears by a daily diet of bananas, half a watermelon and vegan banana ice cream, appear next to posts related to health and wellness.” 

Lau says this helps to drive a negative diet culture – for example, the teenage clients of some of her fellow dietitians have asked if they should follow such eating plans in their bid to lose weight.

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While there is nothing wrong with wanting to shape up and feel good about your appearance, many teenagers pressure themselves to achieve unrealistic goals, and resort to seemingly legitimate weight-loss diets touted by fitness influencers. 

“Health and fitness is a learning journey, and it really pays to speak to an expert or do some online research from reliable sources such as the Centre for Health Protection to help you make an educated choice before jumping on the next diet bandwagon,” Lau says.

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