- Experts say food photos on social media can encourage poor eating habits.
- Experts express concerns about “What I Eat in a Day” videos posted on TikTok and other social media.
- The videos, experts say, can promote poor eating habits as well as trigger eating disorders.
- They say parents should be aware of what their children are watching and be good role models.
Medical professionals are increasingly concerned over thousands of “What I Eat in a Day” videos posted by young people as examples of how they should manage their diets.
Posted frequently by young social media influencers, the videos appear mostly on TikTok and Instagram and typically are meant to inspire.
Doctors and nutritionists, however, say many of the clips promote unhealthy eating habits as ways to look and feel one’s best.
“Many of these videos are promoting diet culture and disordered eating behaviors. When watching these videos, people may feel self-conscious and anxious about what they eat in a day, compared to these curated videos,” Chelsea Kronengold, the communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association, told Healthline.
“People may become fixated on what they eat, and this content can perpetuate disordered eating behaviors like restriction and orthorexia, (which is) an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating,” Kronengold added.
The frequent one-size-fits-all approach is a big part of the problem, experts say.
“’What I Eat in a day’ videos can set the viewer up for unrealistic expectations and lead to disordered behaviors,” Allison Chase, a psychologist based in Austin, Texas, and regional clinical director with the Eating Recovery Center, told Healthline.
Effects on the mind and body
Chase noted that the target audience usually doesn’t yet have fully developed brains.
“The viewer could think, ‘Well, if this girl has the body I want, and this is what she’s eating, then if I eat what she eats in a day, I’ll look like that, too,’” Chase explained. “But that’s not a healthy or realistic way to achieve what is likely a very unrealistic goal. What fits the needs of one body does not fit the needs of another. Our bodies are complex machines, so to speak, and it is essential we recognize what is needed for our own health and well-being.”
She detailed the harm of a quick-fix approach.
“It can be especially dangerous when people post advice for excessive calorie restriction or removing food groups or supplements or pills that do something ‘magical,’” she said. “Extreme behavior or quick fixes can be harmful to one’s health and promote disordered eating. Any major diet change should be directed by, and monitored by, a doctor or nutritionist.”
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist and author of “This is Your Brain on Food,” told Healthline that the videos “can trigger mental health conditions like emotional eating, anorexia, bulimia, PTSD, orthorexia, just to start.”
“Few realize what a big impact these have on our mental well-being,” Naidoo said. “Now, more than ever, we need to be protecting and fortifying our mental health, as we know that more are feeling depressed and anxious and not sleeping.”
She compared the human microbiome to an individual thumbprint.
“When talking about diet, each person has individual needs and requirements in terms of energy expenditure, metabolism, insulin resistance, inflammation, and oxidative stress,” Naidoo said. “Even if two people eat exactly the same food, their bodies will digest, process, and use these nutrients in very different ways.”
John Fawkes, a Los Angeles-based certified nutrition coach and personal trainer, told Healthline that he sees plenty of videos about what people don’t eat in a day.
“There seems to be a lot of undereating promoted in these videos, consciously or unconsciously,” Fawkes said. “I’ve seen way too many videos where someone eats one piece of fruit for breakfast, an unbalanced low-carb salad for lunch, and something diet fad-promoting for dinner. It’s barely enough calories for a child, much less an adolescent or adult. Under-eating is not only dangerous from a caloric standpoint, but a lot of these diets lack micronutrients and variety as well.”
“A lot of ‘What I Eat in a day’ content is made by, and seems to target, adolescent females who already experience a tremendous amount of complicated and unhealthy body image messages. You’re only adding fuel to the fire,” he added.
Dr. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, a New York-based internist, called some of the content “quite alarming.”
“Keep in mind that kids and young adults viewing these posts are in the very critical formative years of development, and the type of online content they’re bombarded with undoubtedly impacts the trajectory of their social, physical, and mental health development,” Okeke-Igbokwe told Healthline. “The health implications can be quite devastating. If one is seeking guidance on what to eat for health maintenance, then it’s best to discuss with a doctor or a nutritionist who knows the comprehensive health history of the individual and is best equipped to offer professional nutrition counseling.”
Some experts say not all food videos are harmful.
“Some of them do have great ideas on how to incorporate more vegetables, fiber, good fats, protein, and healthy whole foods into your daily diet, so I think for inspirational purposes, they might have a positive take,” said Naidoo. “For example, a client once asked me what the heck to do with an avocado. She knew she should buy it but simply did not know how to use it.”
“One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is increased virtual support for people with eating disorders,” Kronengold said. “There has been an uptick in professionals and influencers providing virtual meal support to people who may be struggling with food and has body issues.”
Health professionals say parents should serve as role models and get children involved in grocery shopping and food preparation.
Paying attention to their social media content also helps.
“The best way for parents to be equipped to get a kid’s accurate nutrition information is to learn how to first find that information,” said Leah Forristall, a registered dietician practicing in Massachusetts. “Parents should seek nutrition advice from registered dieticians and educate their kids to do so as well. When it comes to weight loss, people often look for the quickest way. Social media has made it easier now than ever before to get nutrition advice but, unfortunately, that advice is not always accurate.”