Online dietitians backed by General Mills, big food companies using ‘anti-diet’ language to promote junk food

A spoon raises a portion of a fruity cereal from a bowl of cereal and milk
Major food companies are capitalizing on "anti-diet" language used by influencers.
Aline Ponce | Pixabay

Cupcakes. Frozen Pizza. Ice Cream. Cereal. These are some of the sugary foods that a slew of social media influencers are encouraging folks to enjoy guilt free. It’s part of an online body positivity effort using “anti-diet” language to avoid food shaming.  

However, a joint Washington Post and The Examination investigation found that major food companies, including Minnesota-based food giant General Mills, are reportedly capitalizing on the campaign by paying online dietitians to get people to consume more of their highly processed foods. 

Anjali Tsui, one of the reporters behind the report, joined us on All Things Considered to discuss what they found.  

Hear the conversation using the audio player above or read a transcript of it below. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

What is the anti-diet campaign?

The anti-diet movement started as a way to fight back against weight bias and diet culture. And this movement has actually been around for decades, as early as the 1960s. There was this grassroots movement that later became “Health at Every Size.” They were trying to promote equal access to health care for people in larger bodies. And recently, we’ve seen these ideas really take off on social media.

We might have all seen hashtags like #FoodFreedom or #Anti-Diet, but unfortunately, there’s a dark side to this.

We analyzed 1,500 of the social media posts, and we found that some people are making pretty unscientific claims, questioning the connection between nutrition and chronic diseases. Some influencers online are saying that no food should be labeled as junk or unhealthy because all foods have value. And they do this while, you know, snacking on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Twix.

Who are the people pushing it? And how are they doing that?

Recently, General Mills, one of the biggest food companies in America, has started adopting the anti-diet philosophy as a way to promote their products. So, they’re doing this through a multi-pronged campaign that involves funding influencers online to promote this message, funding research and also hiring lobbyists to fight back against federal regulation.

Essentially, they’re focused on this idea that it’s not okay to tell people to avoid sugary or processed foods and they say that’s food shaming. 

What kind of oversight mechanisms are in place for this kind of marketing?

My colleagues, back in September, published another investigation, looking at how the food industry pays these influencer dieticians to essentially shape your eating habits. That investigation prompted some action from the FTC, since many of these dieticians weren’t properly disclosed in their partnership with food companies.

What’s been really interesting, over the course of our reporting, the FDA has also been preparing to introduce a proposed rule that would add additional labels to the front of food packages. So, it would make it easier for consumers to spot if a product is high in sugar, salt and fat. And a General Mills representative said, ‘We're doing everything we can to prevent this from happening.’

What have you heard back from companies about this reporting?

We reached out to General Mills, and they say that they comply with federal regulations, and are working closely with scientific health nutrition experts to make sure that the information that they’re putting out there is accurate and based in evidence.

Where should folks be getting their dietary advice from?

I think it’s best to, when we’re approaching social media, to have a skeptical mindset. And, probably I would recommend people turn to their doctors for advice, as opposed to influencers online.