TikTok is teaching teens and young adults an unhealthy ‘diet culture’

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

November 2 (UPI) — A surge of TikTok creators sharing exercise and diet tips is creating unhealthy relationships with food and negative body image for teens and young adults, according to a new report.

The scientific journal PLOS One has published a report on the dominant themes of TikTok videos that deal with exercise, diet and weight. The researchers found troubling trends under the topic, including a misleading relationship between weight and overall health shared by non-experts in the fields of health and nutrition.

The most common theme was that weight is the most important aspect of overall physical health. Additionally, exercise was seen as the most important benefit in contributing to weight loss, rather than its positive impact on mental health and overall well-being. Less than 3% of videos were coded with messages including weight, while most videos “glorified” weight loss as something users should be looking for.

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

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

The majority of TikTok videos reviewed, around 53%, were created by users of college age or younger. Young female creators made up the majority of content creators.

Legitimate expert voices are notably absent from dialogue on the social media app. The authors note that many medical professionals are unlikely to use TikTok, if they know what it is. Since they probably don’t use it, they can’t fight the misleading messages about dieting and health.

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

“Perhaps the most problematic finding of this study is that young people most often engage and create content about food culture,” the report said.

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

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