TikTok Perpetuates Toxic Diet Culture Among Teens and Young Adults

Summary: The most viewed content on TikTok associated with food, nutrition, and weight perpetuates a toxic diet culture among teens and young adults, a new study reports.

Source: University of Vermont

New research from the University of Vermont finds the most viewed content on TikTok relating to food, nutrition and weight perpetuates a toxic diet culture among teens and young adults and that expert voices are largely missing from the conversation.

Published today in PLOS One, the study found weight-normative messaging, the idea that weight is the most important measure of a person’s health, largely predominates on TikTok with the most popular videos glorifying weight loss and positioning food as a means to achieve health and thinness.

The findings are particularly concerning given existing research indicating social media usage in adolescents and young adults is associated with disordered eating and negative body image.

“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,” said senior researcher Lizzy Pope, associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at UVM.

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

The study is the first to examine nutrition and body-image related content at scale on TikTok. The findings are based on a comprehensive analysis of 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 over a billion views when the study began in 2020; the selected hashtags have grown significantly as TikTok’s user base has expanded.

“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,” said co-author Marisa Minadeo, who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate thesis at UVM.

Over the past few years, the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at UVM has shifted away from a weight-normative mindset, adopting a weight-inclusive approach to teaching dietetics.

The approach centers on using non-weight markers of health and well-being to evaluate a person’s health and rejects the idea that there is a “normal” weight that is achievable or realistic for everyone. If society continues to perpetuate weight normativity, says Pope, we’re perpetuating fat bias.

“Just like people are different heights, we all have different weights,” said Pope. “Weight-inclusive nutrition is really the only just way to look at humanity.”

This shows stills of TikTok videos
Sampling of TikTok videos analyzed in the study. Credit: UVM research team

Weight-inclusive nutrition is becoming popular as a more holistic evaluation of a person’s health. As TikTok users, UVM health and society major Minadeo and her advisor Pope were interested in better understanding the role of TikTok as a source for information about nutrition and healthy eating behaviors.

They were surprised to find that TikTok creators considered to be influencers in the academic nutrition space were not making a dent in the overall landscape of nutrition content.

White, female adolescents and young adults accounted for the majority of creators of content analyzed in the study. Very few creators were considered expert voices, defined by the researchers as someone who self-identified with credentials such as a registered dietitian, doctor, or certified trainer.

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

About this diet and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Vermont
Contact: Press Office – University of Vermont
Image: The image is credited to University of Vermont

Original Research: Open access.
Weight-normative messaging predominates on TikTok—A qualitative content analysis” by Marisa Minadeo et al. PLOS ONE


Weight-normative messaging predominates on TikTok—A qualitative content analysis

Tiktok is a social media platform with many adolescent and young adult users. Food, nutrition, and weight-related posts are popular on TikTok, yet there is little understanding of the content of these posts, and whether nutrition-related content is presented by experts.

The objective was to identify key themes in food, nutrition, and weight-related posts on TikTok. 1000 TikTok videos from 10 popular nutrition, food, and weight-related hashtags each with over 1 billion views were downloaded and analyzed using template analysis.

The one-hundred most viewed videos were downloaded from each of the ten chosen hashtags. Two coders then coded each video for key themes.

Key themes included the glorification of weight loss in many posts, the positioning of food to achieve health and thinness, and the lack of expert voices providing nutrition information. The majority of posts presented a weight-normative view of health, with less than 3% coded as weight-inclusive.

Most posts were created by white, female adolescents and young adults. Nutrition-related content on TikTok is largely weight normative, and may contribute to disordered eating behaviors and body dissatisfaction in the young people that are TikTok’s predominant users.

Helping users discern credible nutrition information, and eliminate triggering content from their social media feeds may be strategies to address the weight-normative social media content that is so prevalent.

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