How TikTok perpetuates toxic diet culture

TikTok’s most watched food, nutrition and weight related videos are perpetuating toxic diet culture among the social media site’s young audience a large-scale study in the US has found.

Researchers from the University of Vermont in the US analysed 1,000 TikTok videos under the ten most used food, nutrition and weight hashtags. Given the influence of the social media platform, they recommend support for users to discern credible nutrition information, and curate their feeds to avoid diet-related content. 

The team published its findings in PLOS One.

Co-author of the study, Dr Lizzy Pope told Cosmos the study “illustrates how prevalent weight and diet culture related content is on TikTok”.

The study shows content shared under ten popular hashtags – each with over a billion views – perpetuated the idea of weight being the most important measure of a person’s health, glorified thinness and positioned food as a means to achieving health or thinness.

Less than 3% of the videos analysed were ‘weight inclusive.’

For videos coded #nutrition, only 1.4% were created by registered dieticians, with most nutrition advice for weight loss being provided by non-experts.

Journal. Pone. 0267997. T002
The final selected hashtags / Credit: University of Vermont

Pope says, this kind of diet-related content on social media is not benign.

“Previous research has shown that viewing diet-related social media content does correlate with negative body image and eating disorders.”

The findings are particularly concerning given TikTok’s popularity among teens and young adults.

“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 … getting stuck in ‘weight loss TikTok’ can be a really tough environment, especially for the main users of the platform, which are young people,” Pope says.

Reuters Institute surveys across 20 countries including Europe, North America, Japan and Australia have shown 40% of people aged 18-24 use TikTok each week. The platform says a third of its users are aged 14 years or younger.

The analysis also considered special effects like sounds added to the videos, a feature of the social media platform. They found several sounds commonly added to weight loss content included dialogue in the style of a pep talk from a coach or trainer, with phrases like “non excuses”, “get up”, and “if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it”, suggesting failure to lose weight as a failure of personal motivation.

A subset of the videos (14%) mentioned specific diets including low-calorie or high protein diets, liquid ‘cleanses’ and intermittent fasting.

Pope recommends, “young people develop critical thinking skills around the content they see on social media, and carefully curate their feeds to prevent barrages of diet-related content”.

“But It’s also really important that we work on combatting societal norms that perpetuate diet and wellness culture,” she says.

Read more: Vaping on TikTok is depicted positively

Watch: Barbie dolls and body image

Please login to favourite this article.