If you’re like me, quarantine and shelter-in-place orders mean increased screen time on Instagram, Facebook, and even YouTube. These sites offer a plethora of material on popular topics like getting in shape and healthy eating, with much of their content operating on paid sponsorships or discount codes.
Social media can influence everything from our voting to our buying habits, but even more concerning is how it can alter our outlook on our own diet and physicality. Should we choose to follow the recommendations of so-called influencers and their habits, which don’t realistically reflect a majority of their audience, the consequences on our bodies and physical and mental health could have a lasting, detrimental impact that we might be completely unaware of.
Influencer Culture Strikes Again
Social media influencers and the effects they have on our culture at large is a microcosm we’re only beginning to understand. Their glamorous, seemingly problem-free lives paired with constant displays of wealth and status can subtly influence what we buy, what we watch, and how we eat and exercise.
Largely due to quarantine, I recently became aware of a popular YouTube category known as the “What I Eat in a Day” trend, where influencers take their viewers through how they eat and exercise in the span of a day. Other than the content, which we’ll soon get to, it’s mind-blowing that so many influencers have millions of followers, viewers, and comments on videos about such a simple topic. That, coupled with our widespread cultural preference for skinny bodies over healthy ones, spells disaster for the consumers who trust and rely on their favorite social media stars for tips and tricks about diet and exercise.
At first glance, these types of videos are a look into the motivated and inspiring lifestyles of the figures our society has come to idolize, but given another look, these videos display, and even encourage, dangerous eating habits and worrisome perceptions about food, known to nutritionists and dieticians as disordered eating.
Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders
You’ve probably heard of eating disorders, but might be unfamiliar with disordered eating. In the nutrition community, disordered eating is generally recognized as habits that are unhealthy and potentially at risk for developing into an eating disorder (such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge-eating disorder). Because a person has disordered eating habits does not mean they have an eating disorder, but a person with an eating disorder may have begun that illness with disordered eating habits.
Disordered eating habits affect nearly 50% of the population and are not limited to a specific age group, race, or gender. These habits can affect an individual’s attitude not only towards food but also exercise. Counting calories to an excessive degree, restricting food outside of set, specific times, obsessive exercise, unnatural or impractical anxiety, and aversion to certain foods are all problematic habits associated with disordered eating.
Disordered eating is generally recognized as habits that are unhealthy and potentially at risk for developing into an eating disorder.
One example of this on YouTube is dermatologist and influencer Dr. Dray. Dr. Dray has 650,000 subscribers and was among the first to popularize “What I Eat in a Day” videos, which soon drew concern from viewers due to her reliance on problematic supplements (some with laxative properties), avoidance of specific healthy fats and oils, gaunt appearance, and preference for the volume of a meal over its nutritional quality. Some viewers even commented that seeing this content from her reminded them of their own eating disorders.
With just a simple scroll through our personal Instagram feeds, and maybe an honest examination of our own habits, it’s easy to see how these small practices and certain attitudes have spilled over from social media and influencer culture into our own lives.
What Do We Do Now?
Recognizing disordered eating habits is the first step in recognizing the dangers of it and stopping the potential of it developing into a much more severe disorder that can have lasting consequences. Changing food and exercise habits from obsessive, restrictive ones to more inclusive plans can help manage them.
Finding enjoyable forms of exercise (instead of whatever will burn the most calories) is an alternative to the unhealthy relationship with exercise we can develop alongside disordered eating. In addition to regulated, enjoyable physical activity, we can avoid boxing ourselves in with specific guidelines and regulations by being flexible with meal times, accepting that it’s helpful to have small snacks throughout the day, or going out for a meal with friends.
It’s important to recognize when social media crosses a boundary, especially if it’s coloring the way we perceive ourselves.
Additionally, we can monitor what we watch and the influences we’re exposing ourselves to. Instead of clicking on a twenty-minute spiel from an influencer that’s probably trying to sell you tummy-flattening tea, try a video from Abbey Sharp, a registered dietician who makes critique videos on harmful “What I Eat in a Day” content, along with healthy, delicious recipes and tips for recovering from disordered eating.
The content we see on social media correlates to many practices we adopt in our lives. While the answer isn’t necessarily to cut out all social media entirely, it’s important to recognize when it crosses a boundary, especially if it’s coloring the way we perceive ourselves.
It’s hard not to look at a slim, beautiful Instagram star or physically fit Facebook workout guru and not want to look the same way they do. It’s easy to look in the mirror and dislike what we see, and begin to obsess about working out or justify skipping a few meals here and there by telling ourselves it will get us to that level of wherever we want to be.
But by implementing many of the popular go-to tips of those with eating habits that border on the dangerous and unhealthy, we hurt ourselves more in the long-run than we do by making small, meaningful changes with realistic goals in mind.
If you’re experiencing disordered eating or struggling with an eating disorder, it’s okay to ask for help! You can find help and resources at nationaleatingdisorders.org or by calling the national hotline at 1 (800) 931-2237.