- Misleading cancer nutrition claims are prevalent on Pinterest, an image-focused social media platform.
- A new study found that almost 50% of the cancer nutrition content on Pinterest linked to a for-profit site.
- Misleading keywords like “cancer-busting” and “cancer-fighting” were used frequently in these pins.
Pinterest, a platform where users share and “pin” visual inspirations and recipes, contains pervasive misinformation on cancer nutrition, according to a new study.
Researchers found that nearly half of the pins related to cancer nutrition were linked to for-profit websites and 34% of them sold supplements or similar products. Many of these pins also contained misleading keywords like “cancer-busting” and unsubstantiated claims to “treat,” “prevent” or “cure” cancer.
“We were surprised to find out that even though social media can be a source of support and encouragement, a lot of the information about cancer online is misleading and incorrect, which can be pretty distressing to cancer patients and care partners,” Echo Warner, PhD, MPH, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Utah, told Verywell in an email.
Alex Whitaker Cheadle, a breast cancer survivor and women’s health advocate living in Kansas City, turned to Pinterest and other social media sites while undergoing cancer treatment. She was diagnosed at 24 and wondered if her diet played a contributing role.
“It’s probably one of the most vulnerable and scary experiences that you could go through in your life. And it’s just so disheartening that it’s turned into a for-profit moment,” Cheadle told Verywell.
During her cancer treatment, Cheadle’s healthcare providers gave her a binder with information on foods to avoid. However, the binder lacked clear guidance around foods she could eat, which prompted her to seek out other resources online.
“People want to make the right choices, but it can be really overwhelming to find a good source,” Cheadle said.
Pinterest Red Flags
When Cheadle was browsing Pinterest, she came across claims about how breast cancer survivors can’t eat soy and that eating certain plant extracts eliminates the need for chemotherapy.
“It’s not just misinformation; it’s things that could actively harm people,” she said.
Cheadle was just one of the thousands of people who have sought out cancer nutrition information online. A 2018 national survey found that 70% of U.S. adults have turned to the internet for medical information, and many of them were searching for information specifically related to cancer.
There are certain red flags cancer patients and their caregivers can look out for when turning to Pinterest for meal planning ideas, according to Eleonora Teplinsky, MD, head of breast medical oncology at Valley-Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Care in Paramus, NJ.
Content claiming to “cure” cancer is especially alarming because they falsely imply that certain food or recipe will be able to treat cancer, Teplinsky said.
“The phrases ‘anti-cancer,’ ‘cancer-fighting’ or ‘cancer-busting’ are very vague and can foster misinformation,” she said. “These claims are really used to drive social media traffic and increase engagement on social media.”
Teplinsky also noted in a review that sometimes, online sources back up their claims with outdated or discredited scientific studies. Citing a study can make the information feel more reliable and some people may not take the time to fact-check every source mentioned in a social media post.
This gets even more complicated when the scientific sources are credible and the nutrition misinformation is rooted in some truth.
“For example, a compound found in a certain spice or vegetable may show anti-carcinogenic activity in a lab setting, but that doesn’t mean eating those foods will cure or treat a patient’s cancer,” Margaret Raber, DrPH, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatric nutrition at the Baylor College of Medicine and a co-author of the Pinterest study, told Verywell in an email.
Experts recommend evaluating the credentials of the sources on Pinterest and considering the incentives those sources have for sharing the information in the first place. They also encourage individuals to discuss any medical information found online with their healthcare providers.
How Providers and Patients Can Make the Most of Social Media
Experts noted that social media sites should increase their efforts to vet and fact-check health claims on their platforms. Pinterest’s community guidelines state that the site will “remove or limit distribution of false or misleading content” specifically content offering “medically unsupported health claims.”
In light of this new research, it seems that this effort has not been enough to rid the site of false cancer nutrition claims. “So we need to accept that patients are going to encounter nutrition-related misinformation,” Raber said.
The research team now plans to create a tool that will help patients and caregivers sort through all of the online nutrition misinformation.
However, they also stress that healthcare providers should be more open with their patients about the reality of nutrition misinformation.
“Using Pinterest or other online sites for meal ideas is completely fine, and there are some home remedies that many will find helpful, such as chicken soup with ginger for those on chemotherapy,” Raber said. “But folks should avoid making major changes to their dietary patterns without discussing them with their provider.”
What This Means For You
Cancer patients and caregivers can find supportive communities online. But if you’re looking for meal plans to follow during cancer treatment, consider discussing the information with your healthcare team first. Everyone’s body is different and your providers can evaluate whether certain recipes are right for your treatment plan.