It’s time to reconsider taking diet and nutrition advice from TikTok influencers.
A new study published in the scientific journal PLoS One shows that TikTok promotes “toxic” diet culture and “glorifies” extreme weight loss.
The scientists analyzed 1,000 videos across 10 popular fitness- or nutrition-related hashtags. Each video analyzed had over one billion views since the study began in 2020.
Researchers hoped to determine key themes in TikTok videos surrounding food, nutrition and weight. Themes included the glorification of weight loss, the portrayal of food to achieve health and thinness and the lack of experts.
Some hashtags on the videos reviewed included: #bodypositivity, #diet, #fatloss, #MealPrep, #PlusSize, #WeightLoss, #WeightLossCheck, #WhatIEatInADay, #WeightLossJourney and #Nutrition.
The content of the videos ranged from influencers sharing their favorite recipes and daily eating habits to tips on how to lose weight and reduce body fat. Other videos discussed other content going around TikTok, pointing out the benefits and harms of diet culture.
“The fact that billions of people were viewing content about weight on the internet says a lot about the role diet culture plays in our society,” Dr. Marisa Minadeo, a nutrition expert at the University of Vermont who was involved in the study, said.
Scientists found that most diet advice on the platform came from young, white female influencers — not experts. These influencers went viral for being attractive or charismatic, but have no credentials to be giving “nutrition” advice, they said.
“Nutrition-related content on TikTok is largely weight normative, and may contribute to disordered eating behaviors and body dissatisfaction in the young people that are TikTok’s predominant users,” the study said.
Younger people are more vulnerable to eating disorders, most frequently developing between the ages of 12 and 15, Johns Hopkins Medicine noted, and eating disorders affect around 3% of women at some point in their lives.
Given that 60% of TikTok’s 800 million users are between the ages of 16 and 24, viral diet videos are especially harmful to the audience, researchers said.
“Each day, millions of teens and young adults are being fed content on TikTok that paints a very unrealistic and inaccurate picture of food, nutrition and health,” Dr. Lizzy Pop, a dietician at the University of Vermont who led the study, said.
“Getting stuck in weight loss TikTok can be a really tough environment, especially for the main users of the platform, who are young people,” she continued.
There have been many concerning trends that have made their way onto users’ For You Pages.
Body checking — the act of seeking reassurance and information about the size, appearance or look of one’s body or a specific body — has encouraged young women to hyper-focus on their weight and body shape.
There are also plenty of gut-health trends that experts have warned against, including salt-water flushes that supposedly “cleans and flushes” the “sludge” out of your guts and is being used to lose weight fast.
And there’s one trend that doesn’t seem so harmful at first thought — dipping carrots in mustard. Experts are concerned this promotes disordered eating and is considered a “quick fix.”
Many doctors have moved away from the belief that weight is the most important health factor and instead push for “weight-inclusive” nutrition.
Researchers believe strategies like helping users decipher credible nutrition advice and getting rid of triggering content might help address the problem.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, you can get help. Call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at (800) 931-2237 or visit nationaleatingdisorders.org.