TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Are TikTok’s food and diet trends good for or harmful to viewers? The popular social media app has millions of users and millions of content offerings. Billions of views are given to diet and weight content, according to a University of Vermont study.
Their analysis of the social media platform’s content and video trends found that nutrition content on TikTok may be contributing to eating disorders and other negative behaviors. Researchers found that most of the posts present what they call a weight-normative view of health, mainly “created by white, female adolescents and young adults.”
During their study of the videos, the university researchers said that the nutrition content on the site might lead to “disordered eating behaviors and body dissatisfaction” in their younger viewers, who make up the bulk of the platform’s audience.
Part of the issue, as far as the study’s review of videos discusses, is the theory behind weight normativity. The study said weight normativity is a position that health can only be possible at a specific weight, and that weight and diseases are directly related.
It goes further, saying that weight, under the normativity theory, is “integral to health.” On the flip side, weight-inclusive theories instead focus on approaches that improve physical and mental health outcomes, rather than focus on a specific body type or size without stigmatizing health care needs.
“The presentation of diet culture, weight normativity, and the thin ideal on social media is problematic,” the study authors wrote. “Research indicates that social media usage in adolescents and young adults is associated with disordered eating and negative body image.”
TikTok, according to the university study, is new and popular, and commonly used by young adults. The study said “potential exposure to endless weight or food-related content” becomes a concern as a result of the platform’s For You Page algorithm.
Basically, that the more a user interacts with diet and food content, the more it appears, even without following specific accounts. For its young users, the study said the exposure to weight or food content can affect users who may be vulnerable to “dangerous messaging” on the app.
“Although TikTok recently created censorship policies on eating disorder content, it is possible that the app still contains a substantial amount of content that reinforces the thin ideal, weight normativity, and diet culture, and may have the same negative impacts on eating behavior and body image as previous social media sites,” such as Instagram, the study said.
However, due to the nature of TikTok itself, “if TikTok posts portray more weight-inclusive or body-positive content they could potentially help improve body image and feelings of acceptance.”
The study was performed by the University of Vermont’s Committee on Human Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences. The videos they analyzed from TikTok were all publicly viewable. Their analysis examined “1000 TikTok videos from 10 popular nutrition, food, and weight-related hashtags each with over 1 billion views.”
The study then took the 100 most viewed videos and analyzed them for themes which “included the glorification of weight loss in many posts, the positioning of food to achieve health and thinness, and the lack of expert voices providing nutrition information.”
According to the university’s results from the study, “when considering previous literature on the negative influence of social media on young people’s body image and eating behaviors, there is reason to be wary of the impact of the app on its young adult users.”
It said that younger females who make or engage with the weight and food-related content on TikTok face the risk of “having internalized body image and disordered eating behaviors from other aspects of their lives making exposure to weight, food, or body-related content particularly troublesome.”
Further, the “glorification of weight loss” and transformation content, such as before and after videos or progression over the course of a diet or exercise regimen, were classified as “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 study authors wrote in their discussion that the weight loss videos and repetitive suggestion that effort will lead to weight loss on its own, “may reinforce to viewers the belief that weight” indicates a health status, or an overall sense of self-worth.” It calls this potential a danger, which is “increased by the substantial number of views” the content receives.
Focusing on hashtags, TikTok had “almost 10 billion views” on #weightloss. “The number of views the weight-loss focused hashtags received vastly outnumbered” the views on weight-inclusive content. Additionally, the study found that less than 3% of the videos examined were coded for weight inclusive messaging, meaning it is “not prevalent across some of the most viewed nutrition, food, and body-related hashtags on TikTok.”
In conclusion, the University of Vermont’s research team said that “young people are most frequently engaging and creating diet culture content,” without expert voices to give nutrition or health information, and that the trends shown in the videos omit other lifestyle factors that impact weight and health.
By doing so, they said it leaves “viewers with the message that weight loss and thinness is achievable and desirable to all, potentially leading to unhealthy perceptions and behaviors surrounding food, weight and body image.”