While posting your weight loss journey or sharing your weekly groceries with friends and followers on TikTok and other social media may seem harmless, videos and hashtags like #WhatIEatInADay can actually help encourage harmful eating behaviors among young adults, a new study published in PLOS One finds.
Researchers at the University of Vermont analyzed 1,000 TikTok videos under the most popular hashtags related to body image and nutrition using search terms such as food, nutrition, weight and body image.
The study included 10 hashtags with at least one billion or more views. On that list are #WhatIEatInADay and #WeightLoss, which have 3.2 billion views and nearly 10 billion views respectively at the beginning of the study.
Less than 3% of nutrition-related TikTok videos analyzed by study researchers included weight. While most of the content is weight normative which identifies body weight as the main determinant of health.
almost 44% of shared videos include content about weight loss; 20.4% describes a person’s weight change.
Many of the videos also give good or bad labels to food that may “lead to the development of eating disorders such as Orthorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder defined as an obsession with ‘correct’ eating and the fixation on the role of food in our physical health,” the study said.
Young adults may be most at risk
The dangerous implications of weight loss content could land squarely on the app’s young — and vulnerable — demographic.
One-third of TikTok users in the US were 14 or younger in 2020, according to the study’s authors.
The most alarming finding in the study, was the number of young women who interacted with weight loss content.
Over 60% of the videos were made by female presenters and more than half were made by teenage or college age users.
Researchers found that “young women who create and engage with weight or food-related content on TikTok are at risk of internalized body image and disordered eating behavior from other aspects of their lives.”
The study also found that most nutritional advice for weight loss was provided by non-specialists.
“These types of videos may spread and promote harmful dietary interventions to vulnerable audiences who may not have strong media literacy skills,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
Only 1.4% of videos offering advice on nutrition were made by registered dietitians.
And TikTok’s “For You” feature continues to populate videos with relevant content that typically engages users.
This means that “if a person is consistently engaged with dieting, weight loss or food content, the video will continue to be displayed unless the user actively selects a window labeled ‘disinterested,'” the study said.
In 2020, TikTok began implementing a policy that censors eating disorder content — an approach Instagram also took when it banned weight loss ads.
But the study’s authors believe that with the high number of videos promoting diet culture on apps, professionals may need to take part.
They encourage health professionals to be mindful of the types of content that young people interact with and find ways to address them to prevent harmful eating behaviors.
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