TikTok encourages toxic diet culture among teens: Research

Recent research has revealed how the popular social media platform TikTok enables teens to access and engage with toxic diet culture.

While many people use TikTok for entertainment and enjoyment, a recent study from the University of Vermont has found that the most popular content related to food, nutrition, and weight fosters a harmful diet culture among teens and young adults. This research suggests that professional voices are largely absent from the conversation on this important topic.

A recent study published in PLOS One found that TikTok is largely dominated by weight-normative messaging. This means that the app presents the idea that a person’s weight is the most significant indicator of their health. The study also found that the most popular videos on TikTok glorify weight loss and present food as a means of achieving Thinness instead of health.

Given that other studies have shown a correlation between social media and disordered eating as well as negative body image in adolescents and young adults, these findings are especially worrying.

Lizzy Pope, senior researcher and associate professor as well as director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at UVM, said-

“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.”

He further added-

“Getting stuck in weight loss TikTok can be a really tough environment, especially for the main users of the platform, which are young people.”

This is the first study to analyze TikTok videos on a large scale in relation to nutrition and body image. Themes were coded for based on  an analysis of 100 videos from 10 popular hashtags related to nutrition, food, and weight. These chosen hashtags had more than a billion views when the study started in 2020 but have increased significantly along with TikTok’s user growth.

In a statement, co-author Marisa Minadeo ’21 stated, who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate thesis at UVM says-

“We were continuously surprised by how prevalent the topic of weight was on TikTok. The fact that billions of people were viewing content about weight on the internet says a lot about the role diet culture plays in our society,”

In recent years, the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at UVM has shifted from a weight-normative to a weight-inclusive mindset in dietetics instruction.

The suggested approach refutes the supposition that there is an attainable “normal” weight for everyone. Instead, it concentrates on utilizing non-weight health indicators to evaluate a person’s wellness. Pope argues that if society supports weigh normativity, fat discrimination will persist.

Different people have different weights, just like they have different heights, said Pope. He also added-

“Weight-inclusive nutrition is the only way to look at humanity.”

The research team is now looking at how to use their findings in a positive way and plan to utilize TikTok as a platform for promoting health-promotion messages. This could include messages about engaging in physical activity, eating nutritious foods, and self-care strategies for managing stress and emotions.

They hope that these initiatives will help to create a healthier and more inclusive online culture that encourages people of all sizes and shapes to prioritize their health.

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