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13th March 2024

TikTok and Teatox: Why social media is sucking the joy out of food

From ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos to fad diet trends, social media’s rampant championing of toxic diet culture needs to stop
TikTok and Teatox: Why social media is sucking the joy out of food
Credit: Thought Catalog @ Unsplash

Content warning: Toxic diet culture 

As an avid foodie, my Instagram Explore Page contains a myriad of trending recipes and restaurants. I save all of the posts with the delusional belief that I have the skill or patience to make sourdough bread and that my student loan can cover the cost of Manchester’s fine dining.

Whilst I now find scrolling through Instagram an exciting (yet admittedly time-wasting) experience, this wasn’t always the case. Before recipes and restaurants, my Explore Page was brimming with ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos and fad diet trends that had a massively negative impact on my relationship with food.

This is sadly the same for many others, particularly young women. After viewing or liking a couple of ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos, algorithms work quickly to overwhelm your social media with harmful content that can lead to body image concerns and disordered eating.

A recent study undertaken by the University of Vermont found that TikTok’s most popular content relating to food, nutrition, and weight is perpetuating a toxic diet culture among the site’s young audience. Results showed that weight-normative messaging was a recurring theme in TikTok’s most-viewed videos, with many of them glorifying weight loss. This is hardly surprising. What’s more shocking is that only 1.4% of the videos were created by registered dietitians.

When an influencer with a body deemed socially ‘perfect’ gives nutrition information, it often gives them an unqualified authority over viewers. We find ourselves taking their information at face value because we believe it’s the key to achieving the ‘perfect body’ they exhibit.

I’m not saying that Kylie Jenner’s detox tea promo and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Paleo (caveman) diet will have us all binning our PG Tips and eating like Neanderthals. Rather, these posts reinforce toxic messages without us realising them. Detox tea suggests that weight loss is good; a Paleo diet suggests that some foods are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’.

In a Goop article—the wellness brand founded by Paltrow herself—the actress states, “I maintain a very clean diet […] I’m grain-free, sugar-free, eating lots of vegetables and clean protein.”

Using the word ‘clean’ in the context of food suggests that some foods are ‘dirty’ and should be avoided. In this instance, it’s grains and sugars. Nutritionist Sophie Gastman states that “the messaging and moral value we attach to food through language can have a massive impact on our relationship with food.” Presenting sugar as unclean not only food shames people and “disregards the accessibility (in terms of time and money) of what it takes to meet the ‘clean eating’ criteria,” Gastman states, but it can also lead to restrictive eating behaviours.

Who hasn’t referred to certain foods as ‘cheat meals’ or ‘guilty pleasures’? Or even labelled foods as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’? Moralising language around food is something we do without thinking about it, and social media only sustains this.

If I had listened to every food-related piece of advice on my social media, then I’d be living off air. Be it eggs, strawberries, rice, bananas, porridge—and yes, even water—I have viewed posts demonising these items. These pockets of ‘advice’, usually handed out by non-registered dieticians, make cooking and eating a stressful experience when it’s supposed to be something creative, enjoyable, and fuelling.

Whilst at university, I want to be able to devour my post-club meal and enjoy a cheeky cocktail evening without thinking about the calories or telling myself I’ll eat ‘better’ tomorrow. Body positivity and diet culture have progressed so far in the past decade. Since Kate Moss’s 2009 interview with the fashion website WWD, in which she popularised the quote, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” we’ve acknowledged and shunned the message’s toxic implications. So why can’t we recognise the damage caused by assigning moral value to food?

By all means, post your boujee avocado toast. But for the love of brunch, leave out the weight-centric speech and just give me the bleeding recipe!

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