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TikTok promotes ‘toxic’ diet culture among young people

Researchers say their findings are of great concern.

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Skinny teenage girl in depression because of anorexia problem while sleeping on bed
Most food influencers were found to be young white women and very few of them were dietitians or doctors. (Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

By Gwyn Wright via SWNS

TikTok promotes a “toxic” diet culture among teens and young people telling them that weight is the only important health factor, according to a new study.

Scientists at the University of Vermont say the most popular videos on the app with billions of views “glorify” weight loss and depict food as a means to get thin.

Influencers on the popular video-sharing platform view weight as the most important modifier of a person’s health.

And few food experts have much of a following on the social media site.

Researchers say their findings are of great concern given extensive social media use is already linked to negative body image and eating disorders.

Senior researcher Professor Lizzy Pope from the University of Vermont 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.

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

The study is the first to look at food and body image content on the popular platform on a large scale.

For the study, the team analyzed the top 100 videos from 10 popular nutrition, food and weight-related hashtags, which were then coded for key themes.

Each of the 10 hashtags had more than a billion views when the study began in 2020 and the selected hashtags have now grown even more as TikTok’s user base has expanded.

Study co-author Marisa Minadeo from the same university added: “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.”

family, communication and people concept - sad mother looking at her daughter with smartphone having dinner at home
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

Over the last few years, researchers have moved from a mindset that sees weight as the most important marker of health to one which uses other markers of health and well-being to determine how healthy someone is.

It rejects the idea that there is a 'normal' weight that is achievable and healthy for everyone.

The approach, called weight-inclusive nutrition, is becoming increasingly popular.

The researchers use TikTok themselves so they were keen to understand its role as a source of information about nutrition and healthy eating.

They were surprised to find academic nutrition experts on the platform who consider themselves influencers were not making a dent in people’s attitudes.

Instead, most food influencers were young white women and very few of them were dietitians or doctors.

Professor Pope added: “Just like people are different heights, we all have different weights.

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

“We have to help young people develop critical thinking skills and their own body image outside of social media.

“But what we really need is a radical rethinking of how we relate to our bodies, to food and to health.

“This is truly about changing the systems around us so that people can live productive, happy and healthy lives.”

The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

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