In its defense, ChatGPT offers some cautionary advice. When I asked him the fastest way to lose weight, he replied sensibly: “As an AI model of speech, it’s important to note that healthy and sustainable weight loss is a gradual process that requires constant effort and patience.” Yet it is easy to access harmful information by rephrasing the question. Of course, misinformation is everywhere on the internet at large. But using ChatGPT is different than manually scrolling through blog posts, featured stories, and Reddit threads. ChatGPT distills all this information into easily digestible responses, saving time for research and verification.
Because of the way it has been trained, the AI also disproportionately favors English. This means that it can generate recommendations and recipes based on Eurocentric characteristics and preferences. Meanwhile, weight “is perhaps one of the most challenging areas of nutritional care due to the interplay of all the cultural, genetic, socioeconomic, psychological and emotional factors” involved, says Nielsen. A seemingly objective tool like BMI, which has been modeled largely on white male bodies, means that whatever the AI tells you is high or low risk it’s not based on a “representative sample of humans,” as it puts it. Nielsen.
Both experts I spoke to agreed that we shouldn’t be using ChatGPT as a replacement dietitian and should be wary of any meal planning ideas it generates. “The concern is that it could help promote unnecessarily restrictive diets and trigger vulnerable individuals, such as people with a history of disordered eating,” says Marisa Moore, RDN, registered dietitian and author of Plant Love Kitchen: An Easy Guide to Eating Plants. This is something even ChatGPT will admit. When I asked the program how AI could promote the rhetoric of unhealthy diet culture, it was quite self-aware: “By providing information or advice that reinforces unhealthy attitudes about food, body image, and weight loss.”
As Nielsen points out, a chatbot sending questionable responses is not the same as actual human-provided care. If information were all that was needed for better health outcomes, “The Internet would have solved our problems long ago,” she says.
So, how bad is ChatGPT at making meal planning recommendations? I asked the bot to generate seven-day meal plans (no recipes) based on five common diets: less than 1,200 calories a day, keto, vegan, intermittent fasting, and Mediterranean, and asked the experts to rate the results. Read on for the final grades, and remember to always consult a professional for any type of health advice.
Less than 1,200 calories a day
- Overview: This very depressing but commonly attempted meal plan is to limit the amount of food you eat, mostly for weight loss. Here, AI has concocted breakfasts like ½ cup oatmeal or a scrambled egg with a single slice of toast that will make your stomach rumble with hunger. Lunch was pretty much the same every day: a cup of vegetable soup, a mixed green salad and low-fat dressing, and a 4-ounce serving of grilled chicken or salmon. Dinner brought out options like grilled shrimp, quinoa and asparagus. Snacks included “1 small apple and 10 almonds”.
- What’s good? Uh, are there vegetables present? Neither expert had anything positive to say about this.
- What’s not so good? “At first glance, this will appear to be a nutritionally balanced meal plan for the user, causing them to think this is a healthy way to lose weight,” says Nielsen. “I won’t talk about nutritional adequacy here except to state something that might help people understand why this eating plan is so harmful: This energy level is inadequate for anyone over the age of two. The food plan lays bare the profoundly dangerous potential of artificial intelligence.
- Final vote: f
The ketogenic diet
- Overview: Keto is a controversial low-carb diet that persuades the body to burn fat rather than sugar and carbohydrates. Medically, it’s mostly used to treat conditions like epilepsy, and prioritizes foods high in fat and protein that will give you meat sweats just by reading about them. For breakfast, ChatGPT suggested meals like scrambled eggs with spinach, bacon and avocado or Greek yogurt with nuts and berries. Some types of animal proteins and vegetables, such as zucchini noodles with meatballs, were typical for lunch and dinner.
- What’s good? “This meal plan contains far less red meat than I would have expected,” says Nielsen. Keto diets tend to be light on vegetables, due to their carbohydrate content, but this one makes an effort to include produce with every meal. However, says Nielsen, someone who may have a medical need to follow this eating plan “may not be sure that the balance of fat, protein and carbohydrates is actually adequate to achieve ketosis,” a metabolic state in where your body burns fat instead of sugar.
- What’s not so good? In addition to treating legitimate but few medical conditions, such as nonreactive epilepsy, most dietitians don’t recommend a keto diet. It’s “deeply restrictive,” could exacerbate eating disorders and predispose people to “sky-high cholesterol levels and nutrient deficiencies.” says Nielsen. It’s also very low in fiber, which can cause constipation. Since ketosis tends to decrease sodium in the body, “people on a ketogenic diet long-term also need to increase their sodium intake, which is super dangerous if you’re not sure you’re on ketogenic metabolism and super dangerous not do it if you are,” he adds.
- Final vote: c
- Overview: According to ChatGPT, “a vegan diet is one that eliminates all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and honey.” The rather bland seven-day meal plan suggested I eat vegan yogurt with fruit and granola for breakfast; hummus and vegetable wrap with baby carrots for lunch; and vegan shepherd’s pie for dinner.
- What’s good? “Artificial intelligence knows legumes exist!” says Nielsen. The plan includes some sort of beans or lentils for lunch or dinner, which are a great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and vegan protein.
- What’s not so good? That said, “breakfast meals appear consistently low in protein, which could leave the person feeling hungry, especially without a snack,” says Moore. He notes that the plan is also low in essential vitamins and minerals, such as omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, zinc, iron and calcium. Nielsen agrees, adding that “some of these days don’t feel like much food.”
- Final vote: B-
- Overview: This diet, designed specifically for weight loss, typically involves not eating for about 16 hours and then destroying a day’s worth of food in eight hours. For this seven-day plan, ChatGPT has not only suggested three meals and two snacks a day, but also the times people should eat them, from noon until 8pm. egg for “breakfast” at noon, grilled chicken with roasted vegetables for lunch at 4pm and salmon with quinoa for dinner at 8pm
- What’s good? “He’s making an effort to include fruits and vegetables in nearly every meal and snack, which, for the average American, is more than what he’s currently eating,” says Nielsen. “Honestly, if this were a customer’s food record, minus the limited time to eat, I’d say it’s clear they are making an effort to eat a balanced diet of whole foods. Gold star, robot!
- What’s not so good? That said, intermittent fasting can be dangerous for menstruating adults as well as people with a history of disordered eating, the latter of which “will be many of the same people who are looking for just this eating plan,” says Neilsen. “Ignoring your natural hunger cues to adjust to the eight-hour time window can be profoundly damaging to your relationship with food and your body. Additionally, it could be physically harmful depending on pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes. (Fasting for long periods can cause insulin levels to rise and fall.)
- Final vote: YES+
- Overview: There are no real rules around the Mediterranean diet, but the general vibe is to eat whole grains, plants, and heart-healthy fats like olive oil. It is inherently a diet with many options and few restrictions. With the spotlight on ingredients like feta cheese, pasta, and pita bread, ChatGPT’s plan for this sounds seriously delicious and not too different from what I eat in a normal week (minus the meat). ChatGPT suggested avocado toast and poached eggs for breakfast; falafel salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and tahini for lunch; baked salmon with roasted vegetables for dinner; and “apple slices with almond butter” or a non-prescriptive “handful of almonds” for snacking.
- What’s good? “This meal plan features plenty of fruits and vegetables without neglecting nuts or legumes,” says Nielsen, who would green light most meals for her clients. “This diet is very uncontroversial and well-researched, so it makes sense that ChatGPT knocked it out of the park.”
- What’s not so good? That said, it might not be a great option as it is for vegans or vegetarians. “I would have liked to see more legumes, because I wonder what [this group] would be good for protein. It’s also deeply Eurocentric and not one-size-fits-all in terms of cultural eating,” says Nielsen.
- Final vote: A-