TikTok teaching teens and young adults unhealthy ‘diet culture’

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A new study finds TikTok videos promote an unhealthy relationship between weight loss and overall health. EPA-EFE/ALEX PLAVEVSKI

Nov. 2 (UPI) — A wave of TikTok creators sharing exercise and diet advice is creating unhealthy relationships with food and a negative body image for teens and young adults, a new report shows.

Scientific journal PLOS One published a report on the dominant themes of TikTok videos which discuss exercise, diet and weight. Researchers found some troubling trends under the subject, including a misleading relationship between weight and overall health shared by non-experts in the fields of health and nutrition.

The most prevalent theme was that weight is the most important aspect of overall physical health. Furthermore, exercise was considered the most significant benefit in its contribution to weight loss, rather than its positive impact on mental health and overall wellbeing. Less than 3% of videos were coded with weight-inclusive messaging, while most videos “glorified” weight loss as something users should strive for.

Co-authors Marisa Minadeo and Lizzy Pope of the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont reviewed 1,000 videos from the most popular creators on the subject. One of the discoveries they found to be the most troubling was under the “whatieatinaday” hashtag. This hashtag is used by people sharing their meal preparation routine or showing what they purport to be a typical day of eating for them.

“The ‘whatieatinaday’ hashtag has become so weight normative and triggering that videos using it now carry a trigger warning for eating disorders including a link to the National Eating Disorder Association’s help line because so many people were using the hashtag to show how little they ate in a day,” the report said.

A majority of the TikTok videos reviewed, about 53%, were created by users who are college-aged or younger. Young, female creators were found to be the majority of content makers.

Notably missing from the dialogue on the social media app are legitimate expert voices. The authors note that many health professionals are unlikely to use TikTok, if they know what it is at all. Since they are likely not using it, they are not able to combat the misleading messages about dieting and health.

The messaging from these videos reinforce ideas about physical appearance and effort, positing that the inability to lose or keep off weight is a sign of laziness. The videos also focus on a point in time in a person’s life when they are at their preferred weight, ignoring the work involved to get there or stay there.

“Perhaps the most problematic finding from this study is that young people are most frequently engaging and creating diet culture content,” the report said.

Minadeo and Pope said this research can help health professionals understand the messages about health that are out there and help them prepare to counter that narrative.

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