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A new study shows that nutrition and weight loss content on TikTok encourages a “toxic” diet culture among teens and young adults. Maskot/Getty Images
  • A new study shows that food, nutrition, and weight loss content on TikTok perpetuates a “toxic” diet culture among teens and young adults.
  • The study authors indicate that nutrition experts are being overshadowed by nutrition influencers lacking expertise.
  • To promote healthier, more inclusive content, experts say TikTok users need to make the decision not to interact with harmful messaging around nutrition and diet.
  • Doing so could modify the algorithm and possibly reduce the number of people exposed to harmful content.

Quickly becoming one of the most popular social media platforms in 2022, TikTok began its rise in popularity in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, when everyone started working and spending most of their time at home.

During that time, the social media app saw a growth of 180% among users 15 to 25 years old.

One of the most widely consumed types of content on TikTok is health and nutrition. This information is being shared by influencers, who are typically not doctors or dietitians.

According to a new study from the University of Vermont, food, nutrition, and weight loss content on TikTok encourage a “toxic” diet culture among teens and young adults. Researchers also note that expert opinions are often not included in the mix.

While both men and women are influenced by social media, research from 2020 shows that women are affected at higher rates when it comes to their mental health.

Being exposed to harmful health messaging can be especially difficult for teenagers, who already feel pressure to fit in and, at the same time, are navigating physical development and emotional changes. Prior studies, for instance, have shown a connection between social media and teen suicide and self-harm.

In the TikTok study, researchers discovered that weight-normative messaging, the notion that weight is the most accurate indicator of an individual’s health, is prevalent on this social platform.

The most viewed content idealizes weight loss and depicts food as a way to be thin and healthy.

“While we did see professional influencers in the videos we looked at, we also just saw a lot of normal people saying, ‘this is how I lost 15 pounds. It’s super easy. You can do it too.’ And that’s seductive to viewers,” Lizzy Pope, PhD, RD, senior author of the study and associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at UVM, told Healthline.

Similar issues promoting unhealthy messaging exist on Instagram, but what’s interesting about Tik Tok specifically, according to Pope, is how its powerful algorithm intersects with diet culture.

TikTok’s main user base is young people who tend to be of the age that’s most at risk for developing an eating disorder, Pope explained.

“If you interact with diet culture content, you’re going to get more of it,” Pope said. “That may be true for other platforms, but the way TikTok scrolls and the way you get access to content so easily from people [who] aren’t your friends makes it different.”

In addition, TikTok, by design, makes it all too easy to consume a lot of content in a very short amount of time.

“TikTok videos are short-form, and this condensed window provides the perfect platform to communicate overly simplified and moralized health messages that can be communicated and digested quickly,” Rebecca Hambright MS, RDN, a dietitian and nutrition therapist with Wise Heart Nutrition & Wellness in Bellingham WA, told Healthline.

While other visual platforms may capitalize on enticing imagery paired with over-simplified health messages, TikTok perpetuates the issue among teens and young adults because it’s currently the most trendy platform to be on, Hambright added.

Researchers and other experts question why TikTok users place so much value on the opinions of influencers who lack expertise and promote harmful messaging around nutrition and diet.

One answer could be that simple messages are often better understood by masses of viewers.

“Nutrition experts are overshadowed by influencers because [they] are more often going to provide context or nuance with nutrition information, while an influencer with a goal to sell a program [or] product will deliver an overly simplified nutrition message,” Hambright said.

Hambright added that people tend to subscribe to “rules,” especially when it comes to nutrition.

According to Hambright, if an influencer can satisfy a viewer’s black-and-white thinking with over-simplified good-and-bad food rules, that’s what sells and gets the most views.

Visual platforms like TikTok can be detrimental to body image because they foster an environment that exposes users to perfectionism and comparison.

For example, most people who create and upload videos on TikTok using nutrition and nutrition-related tags are white, young, and thin-bodied women.

“Social media is often our ‘highlight reel,’ but others take this representation as real life,” Hambright said. “This can create dissatisfaction with our own life or body, never even knowing that what we’re comparing ourselves to was never a realistic measuring stick.”

When someone with the culturally deemed “perfect body” delivers nutrition information, it is easy to conflate this information as the reason why they might have the body they do without considering genetic factors or disordered eating behaviors.

Hambright said that part of the issue is a lack of transparency among many influencers.

When someone is not qualified to provide nutrition information, Hambright stressed they should be transparent about that and clarify that their body type is probably not the result of whatever diet or cleanse they are recommending.

If younger TikTok users can learn how to spot potentially harmful content on TikTok that promotes a toxic diet culture and actively choose not to interact with it, they may be able to avoid some of the harmful messaging around dieting.

“This requires actively saying, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ Pope said.

“You have to take an extra step to do that, and it takes effort. But if we can clear our social media feeds of this input, then it doesn’t make money, doesn’t get views, and it’s not going to be perpetuated. We have to take an active stand in our own lives to say, ‘I don’t want to see this anymore. I don’t want to be influenced by this.’”

In addition, parents can take action by monitoring their children’s social media habits.

“If I had advice for parents, it would be to ask their teenagers what they are seeing on TikTok so they can at least know what it is that their kids are exposed to and what they might be thinking about in the background — and when it could lead to something like a disordered eating behavior,” Pope said.

On TikTok, messaging around weight and body image paints an inaccurate and potentially harmful picture of a person’s health.

Many TikTok influencers who offer dieting and weight loss tips lack expertise and credentials and send false messages about solutions to becoming “thin and healthy.”

To encourage healthier, more inclusive content, experts agree the first step is for TikTok users to stop engaging with harmful messages around diet, nutrition, and weight loss.

Doing so could help shift the algorithm to stop perpetuating these harmful messages to young people.