In this article:
- Diet culture refers to a widespread attitude toward food and our bodies that values weight above health and wellness. Eating becomes a meticulously tracked chore with the goal of becoming thin. Eating for pleasure becomes shameful.
- The rising popularity of “what I eat in a day” videos on TikTok is making this already problematic obsession with weight even worse.
- Influencers can portray themselves as maintaining flawless diets with the perfect balance of nutrients and calories. The implication is: I look this good (re: thin) because I eat this perfect diet.
- This puts pressure on audiences to live up to that ideal (which the influencer may not even live up to once the camera is off) and feel ashamed whenever they indulge in a meal without first measuring portions or assembling the optimal nutritionally-balanced plate.
Picture this: A health and wellness TikTok influencer shares what they eat in a day with their audience. The video begins with a quick body check followed by the food they consume to look that good.
Their meals are colorful and nutritious, from morning smoothie bowls to dinner salads. Even their beverages and snacks pass the guilt-free check. They sip on detox teas and munch on low-calorie rice cakes when they feel hungry.
Now picture this: You’re looking for some motivation to get healthier and you come across hundreds of these ‘What I Eat in a Day’ posts, a hashtag that has 13.1 billion views on TikTok. There’s more than enough to convince you that the only way to look and feel good is to do what others are doing.
For starters, you must get on a steady diet of sinless, organic, gluten-free, low-carb, high-protein whole foods. Oh, and don’t forget to down eight glasses of water a day, track your macros, spend two hours at the gym, abstain from alcohol and toxins, and get eight to 10 hours of shuteye.
As helpful and engaging these videos mean to be, the overall messaging always ends up sounding the same. That we need to make the right choice — the perfect choice — every time to achieve optimal health and wellness.
On the surface, ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos appear almost harmless. They’re essentially food journals anyone can make available to the public for inspiration. But the content is simultaneously an ingredient and a product of a toxic diet culture that we can’t just untangle ourselves from. And it’s a pervasive culture that’s damaging our relationship with food, exercise, and our own bodies.
What Is Diet Culture?
The rise of the body positivity and anti-diet movements introduced me to the term “diet culture.” It’s become a buzzword, a hashtag with 577.2 million views of its own on TikTok, that I consider necessary to get out there. It refers to the set of beliefs and behaviors that values weight, or lack thereof, above overall health and wellbeing. The more we can identify what is diet culture and what isn’t, the better we can resist this system of oppression that normalizes manipulating your body to fit an ideal mold.
The term may be coined relatively recently but we’ve been living through decades, if not centuries, of diet culture. Think of the invention of the corset as the original shapewear. Heaven forbid that Victorian women have belly fat and flat chests!
We seem to never learn that extreme low-calorie diets, whether they’re called Master cleanse or intermittent fasting, and ingesting tapeworms, are not sustainable tracks to health. They are bandaid solutions or quick fixes, and harmful ones at that. Diet culture has conditioned us to jump from one trend to the next and ignore the beating that yo-yo dieting leaves on our bodies.
Alongside those diets are products and services that profit off of making us feel bad for the way we look. In 2016, Gold’s Gym ran an advertisement that had a picture of a pear and the caption, “This is no shape for a girl.”
As awful as they were, they’re not the first to use body-shaming as a business tactic. Several vintage ads from Ry-Krisp, a low-calorie snack, read, “Don’t get left… GET RY-KRISP!” The ads implied that women can avoid getting left by their significant other by shrinking their bodies.
More than a century later, advertisements have admittedly become more subtle in their messaging. Cancel culture would, frankly, rip them apart. That doesn’t mean that diet culture has died out. It just means that the approach has evolved from fear-mongering to highlighting the positive attributes of products and services.
Businesses are still heavily profiting from perpetuating diet culture by using positive branding, such as ‘sinless’, ‘guilt-free’, or when it comes to clothing, ‘plus size’ and ‘extended sizing.’
Diet culture goes far beyond the ads we see. It’s in the way we talk to ourselves and to others. Language like, “Ugh, I feel fat,” and, “Did you lose weight? You look great,” are reflective of the weight we put on, well, weight. It’s in the way we think and act, too.
Maybe you choose not to say anything but judging a friend for getting an extra slice of pizza or cake is a reflex we’ve developed from diet culture. It could be an extension of the same guilt you feel around certain foods or the absence of exercise. So you force yourself to opt for the salad or go the gym at the expense of your enjoyment.
TikTok Is a Place Where Diet Culture Thrives
We are not born this way but we are born into diet culture. For instance, a lot of its messaging affects soon-to-be moms and new moms. We see ads like, “Get your pre-baby body back,” and we’ve witnessed (or shared in) the obsession with celebrities who are pregnant or had just given birth and their bodies. The worship of thinness is echoed at home, even in ways parents don’t realize, where young children internalize early on that being fat is not okay.
These beliefs are further reinforced by different forms of media that we’re exposed to as we grow older. For me, those were magazines, daytime television, and social media platforms like tumblr. For this generation of young and impressionable viewers, content that echoes diet culture beliefs come from TikTok.
‘What I Eat in a Day’ posts, for instance, put too much focus on clean eating. Not only do they pressure audiences to eat a certain way, clinical psychologist Colleen Reichmann, PsyD, adds, “This is so problematic, because the vast majority of the time, the videos are being done by thin, able-bodied, younger white women—women with an immense amount of body privilege.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to diet and exercise because we’re all different. When a person who religiously follows a thin influencer’s diet doesn’t get the results they wanted, they could take their habits to the extreme and develop an eating disorder.
Furthermore, the meals shared on TikTok are staged. They’re made to look good and give an appearance of moral choices — as in, this is the food that’s good for you and this is the food that’s bad for you. Ascribing moral virtue to food or exercise is another product of diet culture that we see a lot of on TikTok. Here’s an example:
Saying certain foods are good for you is not inherently toxic, but demonizing other foods by calling them bad can perpetuate habits that are reflective of diet culture. For instance, it can teach a young viewer to restrict their diet to only ‘good’ foods and avoid ‘bad’ foods at all costs. Say they get hungry and the only thing they have at home is white bread and peanut butter, they might choose to skip that meal instead of listening to their hunger cues. This can create harmful patterns of obsessing over ‘clean eating’ and ‘sweating out the toxins‘ — phrasing that is, by the way, rampant on social media platforms like TikTok.
Because of the short format of the videos, content creators need to be snappy with their language. Captions like ‘Lose 5 lbs with this trick’ and ‘how to grow your glutes’ are like shiny billboards. They encourage users to engage with the video because there is a clear goal: to lose five pounds fast. All you need to do is follow the steps outlined by the post.
Remember Cassey Ho, aka Blogilates? An OG YouTuber, Cassey has found a large following on TikTok. She’s perfected the art of writing attention-grabbing captions on her page, like ““Healthy” Coke”, “I drink this everyday,” and “6 things to transform your body”. The more clicks pages like Cassey’s get, the more she can sell her products and services. Through her meal plans, exercise equipment, and activewear, Cassey does make a pretty penny online, even if her business is dependent on keeping diet culture alive. (I’d argue that Cassey, who has struggled with body dysmorphia and eating disorders in the past, is just as much of a victim as she is a perpetrator of diet culture, but that is whole ‘nother thread to follow.)
The thing is, Cassey isn’t alone in profiting off of diet culture on platforms like TikTok. There are dozens of weight loss products that trend on the app. Videos of people trying metabolism drops by Rae Wellness went viral not too long ago. These products promised a metabolism boost largely through the ketone and caffeine content. The wellness brand also stated that their products were evidence-based but failed to provide reputable research to their claims. The metabolism drops have, thankfully, been recalled by the FDA due to the false claims the brand made.
That said, products like the Kardashian-approved detox teas and appetite-suppressing pills still get plenty of clicks. And if I understand the trends of diet culture, any time a weight loss product or a magic pill gets pulled off the shelves, another one enters the market — and the cycle continues.
How To Reject Diet Culture on TikTok
There are plenty of trends on TikTok that allow diet culture to flourish. ‘What I Eat In A Day’ videos, diet and exercise hacks, clickbait language, and ‘I tried this weight loss product and it really works’ ads barely scratch the surface. Add to those the trends of sharing before and after shots or glow-ups and body checks and diet culture becomes omnipresent on social media.
These TikTok trends ultimately damage the way we look at bodies, be it our own or others’. We view people through the lens of diet culture and formulate judgment on someone’s worth based on their weight. If they’re thin, they must be the pillar of discipline and health, someone to aspire to be. Fatphobia becomes internalized in us — we think of people in larger bodies as less — and perhaps show up in discriminatory ways later on.
Diet culture puts thinness on the highest of pedestals and normalizes extreme measures to climb it. Disordered eating habits and overexercising are just some ways it manifests in us. But note that it doesn’t have to be extreme for an action to scream diet culture. Even something like ignoring a craving because it’s not good food or it isn’t your cheat day is a product of the diet culture we’re living in.
But there are ways we can resist diet culture on TikTok:
1. Call out diet culture.
While Tiktok has become a petri dish for harmful messaging, the platform has also become a space for nutritionists, doctors, and fitness professionals to spread the good word. There are dietitians who took to the app to call out toxic diet culture trends and beliefs.
But you don’t have to be a professional to have an opinion about diet culture. Maybe you can share your experiences with it in an engaging way. Users might not be aware that certain behaviors and ideas are harmful but a post gets their attention and helps them to unlearn them.
2. Fix your algorithm.
TikTok has a unique algorithm that pushes more of the content you like. If you engage in a video about dieting, don’t be surprised if you see more low-calorie meals in your For You page. Those will only confirm what you’re already thinking: that you have to take extreme measures to lose weight.
But if you follow content creators who push anti-diet and body positive messaging, you might start feeling a little different. You can learn about the different ways diet culture harms the way you think about your body, the way you treat yourself and other people, and unlearn those habits one by one. Use TikTok’s algorithm to your advantage and not to your detriment.
3. Be mindful of your language and engagement.
Even if you don’t post on TikTok and write clickbait captions, you use language in other ways. For instance, you leave comments on people’s content occasionally.
Well, picture this: A creator shares a glow-up post, highlighting a drastic weight loss. You might be tempted to leave comments on how impressive their weight loss is, or ask what their secret is. Well-meaning comments like that might do more harm than good because they put too much value on thinness. They could end up validating all the restrictive diets and exercise addiction a person experienced to get to their “after” version.
4. Report posts that perpetuate diet culture.
See a viral video promoting harmful fad diets? Weight loss products? How about images criticizing celebrities for gaining weight? Or worshipping those who lose weight? Report them!
As a TikTok user, you have the power to report content and accounts that you consider misleading, inappropriate, and harmful for other users. The app has already made moves to combat diet culture, specifically by including disordered eating content as a violation of their community guidelines. These include videos promoting overexercising and fasting.
While the ban isn’t all-encompassing, it’s a good start to limiting content that promote diet culture on TikTok. The app needs to do more on cracking down on harmful video trends, like banning weight loss product advertisements or limiting it to mature audiences. As a user, though, you can resist diet culture on the platform by being more critical of online trends to participate in, the language you use to connect with others, creators to follow, and the content to share and engage with.