Unpacking Diet Culture on TikTok

Trigger warning: This blog discusses eating disorders

TikTok has risen to fame since the lockdown began (it was downloaded 115 million times in March 2020), and the majority of us have been victim to the ‘just 10 minutes’ that turns into 2 hours of endless scrolling. Whilst TikTok can be a great source of entertainment and has led many of us to get up and dust off our dance moves, it’s important to be aware of its darker side. 

With so many users globally and endless bite-sized content, the platform lends itself to a rapid spread of whatever’s currently trending. This can be anything from catchy dance routines to videos that unwittingly glamorise eating disorders. The issue with TikTok videos in particular is that the more you watch, the smarter the algorithm becomes. So, if you watch one seemingly harmless ‘What I Eat In A Day’ video, you are then bombarded with those sorts of videos on your ‘For You’ page without you even looking for it. But if you are looking for it, it takes less than 30 seconds to type in ‘weight loss tips’ or ‘calorie counting’ before you’re flooded with tips on how to develop disordered eating habits from a multitude of unqualified people. 

What’s even more alarming is that there’s a lot of young eyes on TikTok, with the majority of TikTok users being aged 15-25. This generation is particularly vulnerable to the toxicity of social media because that’s where they’re going to get all of their news and information. Just from reading a few TikTok comments, it’s immediately apparent that there are many users on the app are desperate to lose weight and will do just about anything, including participating in dangerous and unfounded diet trends, in order to achieve that. It’s clear that the main demographic of TikTok already feels the societal pressures to achieve the ‘thin ideal’ but it seems that the app has exacerbated the problem by packaging up diet culture and delivering it in a new way. 

The Problem With ‘What I Eat In A Day’ Videos

As a society we have always been fascinated by what other people eat, whether it’s wondering what your favourite celebrity chows down on or what your best friend had for breakfast. This fascination is what birthed the concept of What I Eat In A Day (or WIEIAD) videos. These videos are not a new trend exclusive to TikTok. They have been popular amongst Youtubers for over a decade, however, the ease of making a TikTok has made these types of video more widespread and accessible than ever. At the time of writing, the #WhatIEatInADay hashtag on TikTok has 6.9 billion views. As the WIEIAD trend has had a second wave of going viral, you don’t even need to search for it in order for it to be shown on your For You page – and more often than not, these videos promote restrictive diets and/or very low calorie consumption. 

The allure of a girl in a thin body with abs showing us what she eats in a day within 30 seconds is almost too irresistible to scroll past, and young people certainly are lapping this up. These videos essentially scream ‘if you eat like me, you can look like me’. Of course, we know this isn’t true – even if everyone in the world kept the same diet and exercise regime, our bodies would still look different from each other – but if you are someone who is wrapped up in the world of disordered eating, it’s hard to not allow these videos to affect your own eating habits. 

There is another side to WIEAD videos, where ‘wellness influencers’ and the people who aspire to be them, show what a ‘normal day’ of eating looks like, but are these really helpful either? A lot of the time attempts to showcase a ‘healthier’ lifestyle can reveal traits of orthorexia (an extreme obsession with healthy eating) and can lead to harmful comparisons. For example, it encourages the rhetoric that we should feel guilty if we eat more than or differently to some random person on TikTok. These videos also fail to acknowledge that achieving ‘health’ is completely subjective. There are so many different ways to enjoy a balanced diet and we need to start questioning why it’s so important to know what other people are eating when we are all so individual. 

The Rise of Documenting Weight Loss Journeys

Another type of video rife on TikTok is people documenting their weight loss journeys. Whilst some people may find them a source of motivation, a lot of the time they inadvertently romanticise disordered eating habits. If you’ve gone from being in a larger body to a smaller one, suddenly you are idolised by thousands of users begging for advice, and this advice is not normally the healthy kind. Diet tips from eating under 1400 calories, to cutting out entire food groups to obsessively drinking water aren’t uncommon, and not to mention the bizarre ‘snack hacks’ that have gained huge popularity on the app. If you thought the cauliflower pizza trend back in 2015 was bad, wait until you realise people are using bell peppers as a bread replacement and eating bowls of fruit with ice and calling it cereal. 

To make matters worse, the creators promoting their weight loss and giving out unsolicited advice to thousands of young, impressionable people, will often come out a few months down the line and realise they actually had an eating disorder. All the warning signs and red flags are there from the start, but the damage is already done for anyone who watched those videos and implemented their ‘tips’ encouraging disordered eating habits. It’s in this fashion that TikTok can quickly become a breeding ground for developing eating disorders and an unhealthy relationship with food. 

Tips To Avoid Diet Culture on TIkTok

Over the years, social media has made it seem impossible to escape the claws of diet culture and TikTok has really amplified this problem. It’s unlikely that these types of videos are going anywhere anytime soon, despite TikTok attempting to ban triggering content, so the best thing you can do is take matters into your own hands. Next time you see a video pop on your For You page that smells of diet culture, just click ‘Not Interested’ in the bottom right corner and get on with your day.

Another way of curating your feed is to follow Registered Dietitians and Nutritionists who are qualified and back up their advice with science. Here are 5 anti-diet dietitians and nutritionists to follow on TikTok: 

  1. @stephgrassodietitian
  2. @nutritionbykylie
  3. @happystronghealthy.rd
  4. @thebalancednutritionist
  5. @findfoodfreedom

 

References & Resources 

Contribution by Sophie Gastman ANutr 

Intuitive Eating: Where do I start?

One of the most common questions I get asked when it comes to Intuitive Eating (IE) is – ‘how do I start?’

The truth is, our bodies are pretty clever in regards to knowing what they want and need and when they want and need it but the thing is, for most of us, diet culture has interrupted our bodies’ signals and has convinced us to believe that those internal cues cannot be trusted.

When you stop fighting your own mind and body, you are able to tune in to these internal messages and meet your psychological and biological needs. However, understandably, when you have spent years dieting and ignoring or trying to drown out what your body is asking for, it is going to take you a while to relearn everything. But if you are patient and compassionate towards yourself, you will get there.

So, where is a good place to start? There are 10 Intuitive Eating principles however, before you put pressure on yourself to learn them all, the tips below may help ease you in to it…

  1. Start thinking about your food choices…

Are you eating food because you genuinely like and WANT it, or, are you listening to your inner critic and choosing it because you think it’s ‘healthier’ or lower in calories? Once you start to identify this, you can start to challenge it. If you are choosing low cal foods to fill you up instead of SATISFY you, you will likely end up overeating anyway because you are eating to feel full and not comfortable. For example, you feel like something sweet after your main meal. You tell yourself you are ‘not allowed’ your favourite chocolate bar so you choose to eat 3 packs of low cal popcorn instead. You may feel unsatisfied and eat the chocolate bar anyway and then feel guilty… BUT, if you had just had the chocolate bar you wanted, you’ll likely feel satisfied!

Now, this is not to say one food is more satisfying than the other, it is an example of how you might pick one food over the other but still feel like your body is asking for something else.

Additionally, the moment you label a food ‘off limits’ your body will want it even more which will likely lead to an ongoing argument in your head – exhausting right!? So try choosing foods that your body is asking for. You will likely find that once you’ve had as much chocolate as you want, your body will then fancy some veg and protein – because like I said, our bodies are clever and are aware of what it needs to thrive.

  1. Shut down the ‘Food Police’!

Following on from point one, try and become more aware of when that voice (the food police) is interrupting your food choices. This voice has come from environmental situations that you’ve been exposed to (AKA DIET CULTURE) and uses misinformation to question your decisions around food. When you become aware of this, you can tell it to F*** off! Only you have the ability to become completely in tune with your body’s needs so do not let misinformation get in the way of that. Also, stop comparing yourself to what others are eating. Your body is unique and comparison will get you nowhere.

  1. Throw your scales away!

Are you someone that weighs yourself everyday? If the answer is yes, answer this – does it bring happiness to your life? I am guessing the answer is no. Health and happiness cannot be measured on weighing scales and they should not dictate how you feel about yourself!

  1. Try eating mindfully

Mindful eating encourages you to slow down, acknowledge what you are eating and how you are eating. A lot of time we are in a rush or eating with distractions that draw our attention away from the whole eating experience. Eating mindfully allows you to be more present and actually enjoy and focus on what you are eating which may also help you become more in tune with your satiety signals. Check out my blog to discover how you might incorporate mindful eating in to your routine and how it may help.

Although it may take some time and practice to feel in tune with your body again, research shows that those who eat intuitively experience improved levels of self esteem, less time preoccupied with food, improved body satisfaction and long term sustainable health.

Helpful resources:

Healthy New Year

It is just so predictable – January hits and we are bombarded with weight loss diets, juice cleanses, meal replacement shakes with 20% etc. And it doesn’t help when you see the likes of the Kardashians jumping on board and promoting this rubbish! But let me remind you, these celebrities are PAID (A LOT) to promote these products and they have no interest at all in your health.

The word ‘diet’ is often used in the month of January as it the most popular month for purchasing gym memberships and embarking on a new meal plan you may have come across online, in a book or in a magazine. You should know, that many of the ‘diets’ available to the public (such as ones published in magazines) are not recommended by qualified nutrition professionals. Unfortunately, it’s usually an ‘influencer’ or celebrity who is promoting their ‘amazing new diet’ that helped them ‘lose 10lbs in 2 weeks’.

So, as a qualified nutritionist, I am here to tell you why you DO NOT need to buy in to any of this diet b*ll****.

Let’s think about this for a minute; what will you get out of a ‘detox’ diet or a calorie restricting diet, or even just a 3 day ‘juice cleanse’? I can confidently answer this question with the response: absolutely nothing positive! Embarking on some sort of fad diet will most likely hinder your relationship with food and leave you feeling worse than when you started. Ultimately, fad diets are not sustainable. I can tell you that there is no research that promotes a positive outcome in regards to the long-term effects of low fat, low calorie, restricting fad diets. In fact, the relevant research actually tells us that weight loss achieved by a non-sustainable diet will most likely lead to additional weight gain in the long run, thus causing you to be more dissatisfied with your body than before.

Now think about this: what about if we learn to LOVE our bodies and BE KIND to ourselves and not feel the need to restrict!? How great would that be! Now I know that’s easier said than done, but I really do believe that the first step to having a healthier relationship with food IS ditching diet culture. Just opt out. If you see it, unfollow it, ignore it, pay no attention to it – because all they want is your money!

I am also going to let you in on my ‘top tip’ to help you start loving your body more –throw away your scales!

Your happiness and perception of your body should not be determined by the number on scales. Period. As individuals, we come in different shapes and sizes; that is what makes us unique. We are not all meant to be the same weight because we are all biologically different. Plus, have you ever stepped on the scales and had it ruin your whole day? If the answer is yes, throw them away now!!

If you feel you need nutrition support, please only ever seek advice from a registered and qualified nutrition professional.