#193 Social Media and Nutrition Counseling


This tip originated in a conversation I had with a couple of participants in my Motivational Interviewing training, and then other colleagues chimed in to add depth. It began as we realized that the recent proliferation of communication platforms has encouraged us to change our style.

Without a diversity of opinion,
the discovery of truth is impossible.
Alexander von Humboldt

Tenderness is what love looks like in private. 
Justice is what love looks like in public.
Cornell West

As nutrition experts, we are passionate about sharing what we know with our clients and the rest of the world. With the advent of new ways to reach our audiences, in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., this question emerges: What is similar and what is different about what we do and how we do it in these platforms as compared to individual counseling?

Let’s first look at one-on-one nutrition counseling. Here we are engaged in a behavior-change conversation. We are most effective at helping this person make health-behavior changes by using the spirit and skills of Motivational Interviewing. MI is carefully designed to support those considering making a change and to make positive change most likely. For example, some of these skills are: asking permission before offering advice (Tip #37); wording our advice in a neutral, factual manner (Tip #147); rolling with any resistance that arises (Tip #103); staying focused on the client’s change talk and encouraging more of it (Tip #69).

We tailor our responses and our advice to this person in this moment. We make very specific suggestions that we know will fit this person. We can choose to delve into more detail in one area or, at another moment, step back to help her see the big picture. We carefully word our suggestions and opinions to fit this person’s world view and beliefs. For example, if we practice within a particular paradigm, such as Health At Every Size® and/or mindful eating, we hold our perspective lightly as we also carefully listen to the client’s viewpoint.

We address resistance as it arises. In MI we know that ambivalence is a part of the process of change. We sit with clients and support them to resolve it (Tip #55).

Now let’s look at the social media setting. When posting on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or other platforms, you will have any one of several intentions. For example, you may wish to:

  • share the latest nutrition science or healthy recipes
  • support those making dietary changes or recovering from an eating disorder
  • increase awareness of harmful effects of images used in advertising
  • correct misinformation you know is held by many in your audience
  • challenge diet culture

How can the concepts of MI help you to be effective as you design your posts? The tailoring and deep exploration of an individual session is not possible in the one-way communication of social media. In these platforms we stay with more general recommendations and presentation of perspectives. Still, there are ways that MI can inform your voice when on social media.

The most troublesome aspect of the one-way character of social media is that the content tends to become “black and white.” Clear opinions and one-sidedness are encouraged. This is your chance to have your voice heard. You have an opinion. Yet, the passion that gets you more followers may inadvertently make actual positive change less likely. If your goal is to change what your followers do in their lives, take a close look at the words you use. Either/or, good/bad approaches do not lead to lasting change. They only strengthen a person’s inner critic (Tip #185). You can minimize this pitfall by avoiding “good” and “bad” language. When we word our advice in a neutral, factual manner, the advice is more apt to be accepted (Tip #147). For example, if your post is about the HAES® approach, you may hold strong opinions about body acceptance. The more opinionated you are, the more this will elicit strong responses from your followers. If this is what you wish, great. But followers who find acceptance a challenge may be turned off. If you are hoping for attitudinal and behavior change, provide various perspectives on the variety of human bodies, and share the benefits of body positivity that you have seen in your practice (and, perhaps, research). Find ways to offer this perspective rather than pushing it as the “best” way.

Don’t assume your audience has given you permission to provide the content you would like to provide. Of course, readers can stop following you or ignore some posts if the ideas don’t fit for them or if they disagree with you. However, some followers will toss out all of what you have to offer because they react negatively to one thing. To minimize this, pepper your posts with statements such as, “This might fit for you or it might not” or “You know your life better than anyone” or “You will decide how to proceed.” This wording encourages a sense of autonomy in your followers. They will be more apt to take what you offer and consider it in light of their lives.

When it’s time to go back to engaging with one person, after posting on social media, consider a deliberate shifting of gears. For the first several minutes, focus carefully on the engagement process (Tip #115) to get you solidly in a client-centered style.

I’ll end here by sharing what two colleagues said about the voice they aim for — whether working with an individual or recording a post on social media. Fiona Sutherland, APD, says she uses a “tone e.g. leading with kindness.” Marci Evans, RD,  works to use the same “voice that is compassionate, kind, clear, open, non-judgmental, curious.”

In addition to my gratitude to Fiona and Marci, I want to thank Katie Massman, RD, for contributing to this tip.

Posted in Tips