Updated: Jun 16
TikTok is one of the biggest social media apps today. Since its launch in 2018, it has been downloaded over 2 billion times. TikTok has allowed people all over the world to connect and share videos that educate, inspire, and entertain others. But there's a dark side to the platform. Diet culture, weight normativity, and the thin ideal has become a major problem on social media. TikTok, specifically, has perpetuated the spread of these negative trends and behaviors across their platform. With TikTok, people don’t need to follow accounts, or even have their own account. The app’s algorithm tailors content “for you.” So if someone engages with a diet, weight loss, or food video, TikTok will keep pumping their feed with more of those videos.
I recently came across a study done by Marisa Minadeo and Lizzy Pope, from the University of Vermont, where they took a deeper look at TikTok’s impact on young peoples’ relationship with food. They found that social media usage in adolescents and young adults is associated with disordered eating and negative body image.
Minadeo and Pope collected 1000 videos from the platform from these ten hashtags (100 videos from each hashtag). They chose these specific hashtags because they are the top hashtags for food/body/weight posts and include a large share of the content posted in these categories on TikTok.
One of the things they found was that a lot of the videos under these hashtags glorified weight loss and suggested that weight is an important indicator of health and overall self-worth. These videos alone had almost 10 billion views at the time they were collected. And the number of views that the weight loss-focused hashtags received significantly outnumbered the number of views weight-inclusive hashtags received. Less than 3% of the videos collected contained weight inclusive messaging or content, suggesting that weight-inclusive messaging is not prevalent across some of the most viewed body-related hashtags on the platform.
Another major finding in this study was under #nutrition category. The videos in this hashtag primarily offered advice about what foods to eat for different purposes. 25% of the videos referenced weight loss in addition to providing nutrition advice. The study explains that an example of one of these videos would be someone showing their weight transformation and then explaining what they ate on their journey. These videos were found to, again, suggest that the purpose of food is to control body size, rather than to nourish the body or fulfill oneself socially or culturally. The study also found that #whatieatinaday has become so weight normative and triggering that videos with the hashtag now have a trigger warning for eating disorders, and a link to the National Eating Disorder Association’s help line.
There was also a lack of professional representation under these hashtags. Of all the videos, 1.4% were created by registered dietitians, suggesting very little expert nutrition advice on the app. Users without professional knowledge are sharing nutrition tips that can be inaccurate, and perpetuate unhealthy eating habits.
The most problematic finding from the story was how these posts are mostly engaged by younger audiences. The virality factor of TikTok in combination with these videos promoting unhealthy behaviors is very dangerous for young people to be exposed to. Many of these videos leave viewers with the message that weight loss and thinness is achievable and desirable to all, which has led to unhealthy perceptions and behaviors surrounding food, weight, and body image.
Hopefully, health professionals can use these findings to develop better strategies to counter the negative impacts that come from engaging with this content. And hopefully these findings will urge people to educate themselves on the ways in which the content they view is subconsciously affecting them. For everyone who is on social media, make sure to take everything you see with a grain of salt. Do some research and talk with health professionals before following trends that may lead to unhealthy behaviors.
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Jack is an intern at Beanbag Health. He is a senior at the University of Connecticut, majoring in Management. Jack states that he has already learned so much during his time at Beanbag Health and feels excited to be a part of a company that is working towards making eating disorder recovery support more accessible. He is looking forward to a future where everyone will be able to access affordable and effective mental health care.
Clinically Reviewed By:
Iain is a consultant psychiatrist with postgraduate training in medicine, psychiatry, complexity science, and healthcare informatics. He's fascinated by the relationship between physical health and mental health and has extensive experience with eating disorder patients in inpatient settings. He's an honorary senior clinical lecturer at University of Oxford. His passion is making psychological strategies for recovery available to all.