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 

Monitoring fitness outside of weight tracking…

When you think about what it means to be fit and healthy, what comes to mind? I’m sure for many of you, weight has been the first thing that surfaces. 

Although considered a useful indicator of health, social media and societal pressures has led many to become obsessed with weight and pair it with the concept of health. Rather unfortunately, this fixation has also led and continues to damage relationships with food and exercise, as well as negatively impacting body confidence and self esteem. 

However, this does not have to be the narrative. You can rewrite the narrative to realise that your health and fitness progression is much more than just a number on the scale.

Rewriting Your Definition of Health and Fitness

It’s a common misconception that health and fitness is solely judged on weight – this is not the case. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Who, 2021)

According to the Cambridge Dictionary fitness is “the condition of being physically strong and healthy” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021)

What this means is that your health and fitness also includes key, and often neglected aspects, such as your physical, social and mental wellbeing. The multifaceted definition of health also means that monitoring your progression changes too, to involve a variety of measures that paint a more holistic picture.  

Top Tips When Monitoring Your Progression

If you are someone who benefits from monitoring your progress – it is recommended for optimal success to:

  1. Use a variety of measures.
  2. Set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound). 
  3. Take an initial reading for each measure prior to starting a new exercise or dietary regime and reassess every 2 weeks. 

Ways You Can Monitor Your Progress Other Than Weight Tracking:

Body Composition

This measure monitors your body’s bone, fat, water and muscle percentage. 

Commonly, muscle and fat percentage is monitored due to their impacts on your health. An excessive fat percentage is linked to increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and certain cancers, whilst a low percentage can lead to osteoporosis, irregular periods or even infertility in women (Tanita, 2021?) A higher muscle mass is linked to an increased basal metabolic rate and reduced risk of falls and fractures associated with age related loss of strength and mobility (Health Harvard, 2016). 

How To Monitor This

You can invest in your own scales at home, or use a scanner in a gym or health centre. It is important to note that this may be more beneficial who are at risk of being considerably underweight or overweight. 

Performance Tracking

This is a really great way to monitor your performance progression, depending on the type of exercise you partake in and your goals. 

For example, for cardiovascular training you can track how far you run, how fast you run a set distance or at what intensity you run on a treadmill. For resistance training you can monitor variables, such as the reps, sets, rest periods, workout frequency, amount of resistance, movement speed and the number of exercises. 

How To Monitor This

Generally your chosen performance variables are based on your specific goal, e.g. muscle gain, muscle loss or improved cardiovascular fitness. Therefore it can be useful to get a qualified coach, PT or fitness app that determines your goals, the performance variables you should monitor and how best to track them. The simplest way you can do this yourself is to record your exercise on a spreadsheet, including your chosen variables. Wrist trackers linked to apps, e.g. a Fitbit, can also be useful for tracking your performance. 

Progress Pictures

This measure is really effective to measure physique progression in an objective way. For example, increases in muscle mass, fat loss or even changes in posture. 

How To Monitor This

The simplest way is to take a front, side and back picture of your body in minimal clothing. Ideally the time of day, clothing, lighting and posing should be consistent to reduce these variables altering your appearance.

Habit Tracking 

This is often overlooked, but perhaps the most important. This is because habit tracking allows you to focus on consistently performing behaviours that lead to positive health change. 

How To Monitor This

The easiest way to track your habits is to determine behaviours each week that will help you to positively achieve your goal and tick them off a checklist or calendar. For example, if your goal is to gain muscle you might choose behaviours such as, sticking to your calorie surplus each day, training 4x a week and hitting your daily protein goal. For weight loss, you may choose to stick to your calorie deficit, get 5000 steps per day and train 3x a week. For a healthy diet, you may aim for 5 portions of fruit & vegetables per day, home cooking your weekday dinners and hitting your daily protein goals.

Furthermore as it’s highly individual, you can include self care, social and mental habits. For example, taking a bath once a week, attending 1 gym class per week to socialise, journaling each night or going on a walk with your family. 

 

To Conclude:

Your health and fitness is multifactorial, therefore using a variety of measures to track your progression can be extremely beneficial. Variety offers a more holistic approach and allows you to be more positively motivated to achieve whatever goal(s) you have set. And importantly, if you need help or support with any of this, it is recommended to invest in a qualified professional!

Please be aware that if you have a disordered relationship with food, these practices may be triggering and counter productive.

 

References 

https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/constitution 

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fitness 

https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/why-is-my-waist-size-important/  

https://tanita.eu/help-guides/understanding-your-measurements/ 

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/preserve-your-muscle-mass 

Contribution by Ashley Hookings