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Are Celebrities Promoting Unhealthy Diets?

Updated: 2/28/22 1:05 pmPublished: 2/28/22
By Natalie Sainz

A study published in JAMA in January 2022 found that popular celebrities on Instagram often post photos of unhealthy foods and beverages. Considering their significant influence, they may be promoting and normalizing diets that can lead to diabetes and obesity.

With over a billion active users around the world, Instagram is one of the world’s most popular social media platforms. Instagram influencers often have millions of followers and the power to sway public opinion based on what they choose to post (or not post). 

Many of us post photos of food on Instagram, but these posts are less related to savoring parts of a meal and more to do with the grandeur and status the photo can signal. Think milkshakes covered in rainbow M&Ms with a donut and giant lollipop, rainbow-colored waffles, and mile-high bacon cheeseburgers. These photos may be “Instagrammable,” but they can give the impression that people eat these extravagant, high calorie foods daily. 

While rates of obesity and diabetes are increasing in the US, thousands of posts portraying unhealthy meals and sugary drinks are posted each day. This is especially alarming considering the close link between the two conditions. 

A 2022 study published in JAMA examining the Instagram accounts of 181 celebrities with large follower bases, including actors, athletes, musicians, and TV personalities, found that a majority of celebrities regularly post an “unhealthy profile” of foods and beverages. The study found that the overall nutrition score for more than 87% of social media accounts in the study sample were unhealthy enough to be legally prohibited in advertising directed at youths in the United Kingdom. 

The study showed that when celebrities post photos of their foods and beverages, they mostly depict alcoholic beverages and sweet bakery products. In addition, food posts with “less healthy nutrition scores'' were more likely to receive increased likes and comments from followers, “indicating greater social approval,” according to the study. Seeing such famous people regularly post these photos can give the impression that consuming these products is normal, healthy, and perhaps even socially appealing.

“It’s disheartening to learn of the results of this study and particularly unfortunate that there is even a need for a study like this to be conducted,” says Hope Warshaw, registered dietician, CDCES, author and member of the diaTribe Advisory Board. “It is my wish that people turn their heads in the other direction when they see social media posts and Instagram photos touting this or that food from celebrities.”

The study’s findings suggest that celebrities who post images of unhealthy meals may promote an unhealthy and unsustainable eating lifestyle. Including sugar, carbs, or even desserts into one’s diet is completely normal, but this should be done in moderation, regardless of one’s health status but perhaps more so for those with diabetes.

Influencers have changed the experience of social media by inundating Instagram with content used to promote certain products, brands, and overall lifestyle. And while many are familiar with how deceiving social media can be, by posting and promoting these kinds of foods and beverages, celebrities “can shape followers’ perceptions of what is normative to consume,” said the authors of the study.

The current Instagram food culture may contribute to a normalization of unhealthy diets. Consequently, more fatty and high-sugar diets in the population’s daily intake may contribute to the fact that more than 2 in 5 adults and 1 in 5 children have obesity in the US. 

“For the most part these celebrities are not credentialed nutrition experts. Unfortunately, these celebrities play on making healthy eating and choosing healthy foods way more complex than it is,” said Warshaw. “The reality is we know lots about what constitutes healthy food and healthy eating habits. Is it easy to choose healthy foods and eat healthfully day after day? No, it’s a challenge, but one that no celebrity is likely to offer you much assistance with, as this study bears out.”

While we should not treat celebrities or influencers like nutritionists, it’s important that these groups understand that people still trust and follow what they post online. We will by no means eradicate diabetes and obesity by requiring celebrities to post photos of only green foods, but they do have some influence over what people want to and will consume. If we can shift towards a greater normalization of healthier diets, we can perhaps also lower rates of diabetes and obesity.

Rather than seeing countless photos of fancy cocktails and ten-layer cakes, we should all strive toward a future with more diverse and realistic diets, consisting of all types of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and yes, even the occasional dessert.

For more information on healthy eating, check out our resources below:

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About the authors

Natalie Sainz joined the diaTribe Foundation in 2021 after graduating from Carleton College with a degree in Political Science and International Relations . Sainz is a writer for diaTribe Learn.... Read the full bio »