There is a scary amount of contradictory health information online.

Scroll through your Instagram feed, and it’s not long until you find – peppered amongst generic quote posts about embracing imperfection and pics from your best mate’s Caribbean holiday – the wild, and sometimes dangerous, opinions of non-experts.

What will you read today? That oats are bad for you? Or that the best way to start the day is with a glass of warm lemon water?

We’ve become so used to turning to the internet for health advice – data from the Statista Research Department shows that 60 per cent of people in the UK use the internet for this exact reason – that deciphering what’s real and true (and what’s not) has become incredibly difficult.

This is where Dr Idrees Mughal (aka Dr Idz) comes in. With a whopping 8 million followers on TikTok and a further 295,000 followers on Instagram, Dr Idz – a UK-trained medical doctor, with an additional master’s degree in Nutritional Research – is on a mission to correct medical misinformation on social media, by offering medically sound, evidence-based advice.

We caught up with Dr Idz ahead of the publication of his first book, Saturated Facts, to find out the motivation behind becoming a ‘social media doctor’ – and how he plans to debunk the common wellness claims we see circulating online time and time again.

Here, he speaks to WH about his desire to myth-bust, inform and educate – and to help the public to make better-informed decisions about their diet.

WH: Why do you think so many of us find nutrition and diet advice so hard to navigate?

Dr Idz: There is a vast amount of nutrition information available from various sources, including the internet, social media, books, and ‘experts’. This information often contains conflicting advice, with one source promoting a particular diet or food as beneficial while another may deem it harmful. Furthermore, dietary advice is often generalised, not taking into account individual differences in metabolism, genetics, health status, activity levels, and personal preferences. This can make it hard for people to find advice that works for them personally. Scientific studies, which are now easily accessible to most people, can be complex and their findings are often nuanced. When these findings are reported on social media or in headlines, they can be oversimplified or misinterpreted, leading to misleading advice.

Nutrition is a complex field that involves understanding how various nutrients and dietary patterns affect the body’s functions. Simplifying this complexity into easily digestible advice without losing nuance can be challenging, but it’s something I’ve tried very hard to achieve in my book Saturated Facts.

WH: Why did you decide to take to social media to start calling out health myths?

Dr Idz: In the midst of the January 2021 Covid lockdown in the UK, my now, doctor colleagues told me about this new platform called TikTok. They suggested that since I can’t continue offering nutrition and exercise advice to clients in person, why don’t I take to TikTok and offer that advice there? Within a day of downloading and scrolling through TikTok, I became hyper-aware of the sheer amount of garbage health advice online. The first viral video I came across was ‘HOW TO LOSE 10LBS IN 2 WEEKS!’. All it was, was a woman dressed in the latest fitness apparel, showcasing her cucumber, mint and lemon juice. The scary thing was that the video had received 10 million views, with thousands of comments saying they were going to try it… This was the turning point. This was when I knew I needed to do something.

WH: What is the most common diet myth you’re constantly debunking?

Dr Idz: There are a few diet myths that I find myself constantly debunking. The idea that ‘seed and vegetable oils are toxic for you’ or that ‘artificial sweeteners are bad for you’. There’s also a concerning rise in people advocating for a fully carnivore diet and the notion that ‘blood sugar spikes are causing type 2 diabetes and inflammation’. I debunk all of these and more in great detail in Saturated Facts.

One common fallacy that perpetrators of all of these myths share is the idea that “Natural is good and anything artificial is bad for you”. This logic can be easily dismantled by a few quick examples. Arsenic is naturally found in many foods including seafood, rice, mushrooms and poultry. Does that make it good for you? What about heavy metals? They’re natural too. Just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t make it healthy and just because something is not found in nature, doesn’t make it harmful or bad. We need to objectively look at the evidence to assess whether something is health-promoting or not. For example, whey protein powders, Iodised salt and vitamin D tablets aren’t things you find in nature, but they sure are beneficial for you.

WH: What’s the one thing you’d like everyone to know about the link between our diet and inflammation?

Dr Idz: You’ll find quite literally 100,000’s of videos online saying things like ‘This ONE food is causing inflammation!’ or ‘Avoid these three foods as they’re responsible for your chronic inflammatory disease!’ The one thing people need to understand is that the impact your diet has on inflammation needs to be viewed through the lens of the entire dietary pattern. That is, the quantity and totality of all foods you consume and what in proportions. This is how you assess whether your diet is increasing or decreasing bodily inflammation. Someone who consumes a minimally processed diet, with plenty of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables won’t increase their inflammatory markers from one fried chicken and soda meal. The tool we use in research to assess how diet impacts inflammation is called the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) and I go into detail in Saturated Facts as to what constitutes an anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory diet.

WH: What’s your best strategy for losing body fat (and keeping it off)?

Dr Idz: Losing weight or body fat is a complicated and often difficult process. That’s why I have dedicated an entire chapter to it in my book, however, one beneficial strategy I think that is under-utilised is the idea of self-monitoring. Having some metric by which you can hold yourself accountable in the early stages of your weight loss journey. Whether that’s keeping a food diary, taking body measurements (for example, waist circumference or limb measurements), using calorie tracking apps or taking daily body weight measurements. Keeping a food diary, for example, can make it easier to identify which areas you need to improve. Are you consuming too many sugary beverages? Are you not eating enough low-calorie fruits and vegetables? Are you consuming too many oils or sauces? Noting down your existing habits can be extremely eye-opening and beneficial when starting off on any weight loss journey.

WH: How important is meal timing?

Dr Idz: This is a complicated subject, but I will say that meal timing is more important than we think. The field of Chrono-nutrition is fascinating and we’re slowly beginning to understand both the direct and indirect effects of adjusting your meal timing. For example, evidence shows that consuming the majority of your calories in the earlier part of your day can benefit blood glucose regulation, sleep quality, general daily movement, energy levels, concentration and productivity, weight loss efforts and more. This is particularly important in today’s health landscape as the vast majority of people consume their largest meal in the evening.

WH: What advice do you have about questioning what we see and read on social media?

Dr Idz: With the rise of social media, countless ‘wellness influencers’ have taken to online platforms to promote unscientific products and promise magic fixes for all kinds of health problems. This is why I like my audience to develop their ‘nonsense radar’. These include a few quick-to-implement filters that will help you spot 95% of garbage health advice online.

4 ways to spot health misinformation online

1) They blame a single food or habit for the rise in chronic disease we see today, often citing ingredients like seed oils or sugar

    This shows they lack nuance and don’t understand that chronic disease arises from a multitude of biological, environmental and psychological factors. No single food or habit can be responsible for a chronic disease.

    2) They speak in absolutes when giving statements, (eg: ‘These are the worst foods for your gut’)

      There is no ‘worst food’ for all when it massively depends on the individual. There are no absolutes in health and nutrition science. Peanuts may be the ‘worst food’ to consume for someone with a peanut allergy, yet it can be extremely health-promoting for someone else. Someone using absolutist statements like this: is typically a red flag.

      3) They imply their knowledge is based on research without citing said research

        We need to become more comfortable asking creators for evidence. ‘That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’. If they fail to provide evidence then you can just ignore it. This will save you a lot of time and stress trying to figure out if a piece of advice is legitimate or not

        4) They push you to distrust modern medicine while selling you a line of unregulated and untested supplements

          Finally, people who are anti-western medicine, yet have no problem selling you untested supplements are outright quacks. The truth is, that many of these fear-mongers wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for modern medicine. I’m all for promoting positive lifestyle and dietary change as a primary intervention, but to imply that modern medical interventions aren’t helpful or are designed to ‘keep you sick’ straight away tells you, they have no idea what they’re talking about.

          Saturated Facts: A Myth-Busting Guide to Diet and Nutrition in a World of Misinformation

          Saturated Facts: A Myth-Busting Guide to Diet and Nutrition in a World of Misinformation

          Saturated Facts: A Myth-Busting Guide to Diet and Nutrition in a World of Misinformation

          Now 18% Off

          Dr Idrees Mughal (Dr Idz)’s Saturated Facts is published by Penguin on 14th March 2024.

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