BURLINGTON, Vt. — While young people have felt pressure to look a certain way and maintain a certain weight for a long, long time, troubling new research reveals today’s adolescents and young adults are being “fed” a steady stream of content on the social media platform TikTok. Researchers warn many popular videos on the app arguably suggest that weight is the most important measure of a person’s health.
Study authors from the University of Vermont found that the most viewed content on TikTok related to either food, nutrition, or weight largely perpetuates a toxic diet culture among young users. Even worse, there’s a glaring lack of voices from anyone remotely qualified to comment on nutrition and weight in relation to health. Researchers say the most popular videos glorify losing weight and position food as a means to achieve health and thinness.
This work is not the first to assess social media’s impact on young people. Prior projects have found a connection between adolescent social media use and disordered eating or 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,” says senior researcher Lizzy Pope, associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at UVM, in a university release. “Getting stuck in weight loss TikTok can be a really tough environment, especially for the main users of the platform, which are young people.”
Is weight really the key measure of healthy living?
This study was the first ever to examine nutrition and body-image related content at scale on TikTok specifically. The research team conducted a comprehensive analysis of the top 100 videos from 10 popular nutrition, food, and weight-related hashtags on TikTok, which they then coded for key themes. Keep in mind that each of those hashtags boasted over a billion views when this project began in 2020. Since then, the hashtags have continued to grow exponentially 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,” adds study co-author Marisa Minadeo, who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate thesis at UVM.
In recent years, the Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at the University of Vermont has moved away from a “weight-normative” mindset — or the idea that one must be skinny to be healthy. Instead, they’ve adopted a weight-inclusive approach that emphasizes dietetics. This new strategy is all about using non-weight markers of health and well-being to measure an individual’s health, as opposed to sticking with the idea that there is an achievable or realistic “normal” weight for everyone. Prof. Pope believes the current weight normative approach perpetuated by much of society promotes fat bias.
“Just like people are different heights, we all have different weights,” Prof. Pope notes. “Weight-inclusive nutrition is really the only just way to look at humanity.”
The true experts are NOT on TikTok
It’s worth noting that the majority of TikTok creators included in this study were white, female adolescents and young adults. Study authors say very few creators were expert voices, defined by the team as an individual with credentials including 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,” Prof. Pope concludes. “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 study is published in PLoS ONE.