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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