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‘Lose weight quick’ online schemes don’t work. Dr. Mike offers these 5 tips instead

Season 9 of the CNN podcast Chasing Life With Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores the intersection between body weight and health. We delve into a wide range of topics, including the evolutionary reasons behind why losing weight is so hard and how to talk to kids about weight. You can listen here.

(CNN) — The internet and social media are rife with marketing ploys: It’s hard to surf the Web or scroll through platforms such as Instagram, Facebook or TikTok without having a slew of ads pop up left, right and center about exactly what you were just viewing. The cookies and algorithms (and other tricks of the trade) follow online users everywhere.

The bombardment seems particularly merciless if you are searching for “lose weight” or “eat healthy” or watching any adjacent reel, story or video. Advertisers and influencers are eager to get your eyeballs on a product, protocol or procedure. Sometimes what’s promised seems like it could, maybe, work — but how can you really tell if it’s legit? Whose advice should you follow?

Enter Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, who has made it his mission to debunk medical misinformation and educate people. Better known as Dr. Mike, he is a practicing family medicine physician in Chatham, New Jersey, who shares his expertise with millions of YouTube and social media followers. These so-called snake oil sellers and their dubious miracle cures are not new, he said; he calls them “I Know All” experts, a term he coined in a 2017 TED Talk.

Dr. Mikhail Varshavski is known as Dr. Mike on social media. - DM Operations Inc.
Dr. Mikhail Varshavski is known as Dr. Mike on social media. - DM Operations Inc.

“I think it’s not a new phenomenon. Ponce de León was searching for the fountain of youth many years ago, and yet we’re still doing that to this day,” Dr. Mike recently told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the podcast Chasing Life. “I just think that the strategies have changed because we have this new added tool of social media that traditionally doctors, who are evidence-based, have shied away from.”

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Dr. Mike said the I Know All experts and their too-good-to-be-true products flourish in the gray zone — where science does not yet have clear answers — and social media and the internet amplify their voices.

“It allowed a prime opportunity for these IKA experts to come in and claim that they have all the answers. And that’s really just a form of trust hacking through mass confidence, as if they know what’s going on with you,” he said.

“(That’s) in dark contrast to what a physician is trained to do: We come in and we don’t claim to know the exact diagnosis. We create one diagnosis along with a differential of other options. It could be, when we recommend the treatment, we hedge and say it works X percentage of the time. But these IKA experts trust-hack and say, ‘I know what’s wrong with you. I know this is going to work for you. Take my miracle potion.’ And that sells very, very well.”

To listen to more of Dr. Mike’s conversation and learn why certain seemingly “can’t hurt, might help” approaches to weight loss — such as tummy teas, fad diets and colon cleanses — could actually be dangerous, click on the player below.

With so much misinformation floating around the internet and social media — especially around the topic of weight loss — what can you do to make sure you’re not going down an ill-advised rabbit hole? Dr. Mike has these five tips.

Don’t believe quick weight loss hype

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“Don’t trust 99% of things you see on social media; be a healthy skeptic. That’s how l like to say it,” said Dr. Mike, noting that there are many sources of information — both governmental, such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s FoodSafety.gov, and academic, such as the site run by Harvard Medical School — that are trustworthy. (Those websites usually end in “.gov,” “.edu” and “.org.”)

“There was a funny commercial — I forgot what it was for; I believe insurance — and there was a woman going on a date with a gentleman, and he completely lied on his profile. And he was, like, ‘Always trust what you see on the internet.’ And that’s a lot (of) how I feel about supplements online and people talking about supplements online: That if it feels too good to be true, allow that inner skeptic in you to further test it, either by doing some more in-depth research on your own if you’re comfortable, or bringing it up at your next visit with your primary care doctor.”

Set yourself up for success with annual doctor visits

Speaking of primary care physicians, prioritize building a relationship with a good medical professional.

“That’s the biggest tip I would give: to create a long-lasting relationship with a primary care doctor,” said Dr. Mike, adding that he sees people in their 20s and 30s using urgent care as their primary care source.

“That’s not what urgent care is meant to be,” he said. “It’s not going to give you good outcomes. You’re not going to form a good relationship. You’re not going to get the benefits of having a longitudinal relationship with a single provider. So, those are important.”

Dr. Mike said such a relationship is especially important when it comes to weight loss, because “how in the world can you help someone sustain weight loss if there’s no continuity of care? It’s, by definition, mandatory for it.”

Avoid tunnel vision on a single fix

When it comes to weight and weight loss, there are many important factors involved, so don’t fall into the trap of obsessing over one, whether that be the one right diet, the one perfect food or the one must-take supplement.

“Zoom out of just thinking about, ‘What I can take or what I can eat?’ and understand that there’s a lot of other things that impact your weight,” Dr. Mike said.

“So, getting seven to nine hours of sleep as an adult, during the same hours of the night, consistently is going to be important for good weight control. Getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity is going to be important.”

Dr. Mike also suggests making small adjustments to your daily habits: Skip the elevator and use the stairs instead, and for short distances, leave the car in the garage and do errands on foot. “These things are going to add up and actually lead you to have better control of your weight,” he said.

Think both body and mind

When it comes to weight, don’t underestimate the role of your mental health.

“(Make) sure that you get help when it comes to mental health issues and concerns,” Dr. Mike said. “Because if you’re not in a good mental health place, it’s very easy to have food become almost a self-treatment for either unhappiness or anxiety. And those conditions — both depression and generalized anxiety disorder — are treatable conditions, by either getting therapy, perhaps some medication if that’s warranted in your condition.

“And you might not even connect weight and mental health — but it plays an incredibly potent role in helping you not just get to a healthy weight but stay and maintain a healthy weight.”

Create a positive relationship with food that’s built to last

Understand some basic principles about the food you consume, so you don’t, for example, vilify or lionize a single food or ingredient.

For example, Dr. Mike said he recently had a guest on his podcast who tried to equate a chocolate kiss to a grape.

“We have to put that in perspective. While you may compare them based on their sugar content, that’s one way to categorize them,” Dr. Mike said. “But then if you compare them to how many nutrients that are valuable to us — like vitamins, fiber, etc. — in grapes versus chocolate, the grapes are clearly healthier.

“So avoid trying to oversimplify nutrition with these hard-and-fast rules, and instead just try and give yourself a general understanding of how foods work. … Because when you’re not as strict and you’re not as hard-and-fast in your thinking about food, you actually create a healthier, long-lasting relationship with food that will give you better outcomes in maintaining a healthy weight.”

We hope these five tips help you think more clearly about food, weight and what you see or hear about them on the internet. Listen to the full episode here. And join us next week on the Chasing Life podcast when we explore how different diets (keto vs. low fat vs. vegan) and the timing of when we eat can affect our weight and health.

CNN Audio’s Jennifer Lai contributed to this report.

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