A study of TikTok’s nutrition-related content found the app’s users perpetuate diet culture through videos glorifying thinness and weight loss. Researchers from the University of Vermont (UVM) say this might contribute to eating disorders and a negative body image among young people, who are the app’s primary users.

Researchers from UVM found that the most-viewed nutrition and food content promoted “weight-normative messaging.” That type of content asserts “health is only possible at a specific weight, weight and disease are linearly related, and one has a personal responsibility for meeting weight expectations,” according to the study. Content on TikTok “included the glorification of weight loss in many posts, the positioning of food to achieve health and thinness, and the lack of expert voices providing nutrition information.”

Lizzy Pope, senior researcher at UVM and co-author Marisa Minadeo, looked at videos with hashtags like #bodypositivity, #fatloss, #mealprep, #plussize, #weightloss, #weightlosscheck, #whatieatinaday, #weightlossjourney and #nutrition in the study, analyzing body-image and nutrition content on TikTok and the impact it is having on its users. Pope and Minadeo assessed that social media often is responsible for diet culture among young adults, which the study claimed, “oppresses people who do not match up with the prescribed vision of ‘health,’ most frequently women, trans people, larger-bodied people, people of color, and people with disabilities.”

They also argued the “ubiquitous nature of diet culture follows logically from weight normativity as weight management is seen by both as essential to health.” In contrast, bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes and people in “all body sizes can achieve health if given the opportunity to pursue health behaviors and access to non-stigmatizing health care.” In February 2021, TikTok implemented censorship policies on eating disorder content, but the research claimed the app may contain “a substantial amount” of content that reinforces diet culture and may have a negative impact on body image.

Almost 44 percent of all the videos analyzed for the study included content about weight loss, while 20.4 percent of videos showed a person’s weight transformation. One hashtag, #whatieatinaday (14.6 billion views), “has become so weight normative and triggering,” videos now carry a trigger warning for eating disorders and include a link to the National Eating Disorder Association’s helpline as so many of the video creators were promoting how little they ate in a day.

“Weight-gain content tended to be masked with body positive hashtags and mentions of ‘self-love,’ but still suggested that weight gain is inherently negative,” the study concluded. “For example, a common caption would be something like, ‘I gained 20 pounds, but I still love myself,'” the study added. “Having to state that you still love yourself when your weight increases suggests exposure to weight bias and fat phobia. Such weight-related stigmas lead to social issues such as devaluation, discrimination and rejection of individuals who are in fat bodies.”

Other content that the study criticized included videos that offered advice about what foods to eat for different purposes, most
often for weight loss. “An example pattern would be users showing their weight transformation, paired with explaining ‘what they ate on their journey,'” the study said. “This suggests again that the purpose of food is to manipulate body size rather than for social or cultural fulfillment.”

Another point of criticism was instructional videos that provide viewers with ideas on how to make “healthy” versions of “junk” foods. “Assigning good or bad labels to food brings emotion and morality to eating,” the study said. “These emotions are internalized as we eat, and eating a food deemed ‘bad’ by diet culture’s standards may lead to negative perceptions of self after consumption.”

Pope and Minadeo argued in favor of more TikTok posts promoting “weight-inclusive or body-positive content” to help improve body image and feelings of acceptance among viewers, as well as training for young adults to build better media literacy, which “may help decrease body dissatisfaction and thin-ideal internalization.”

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