Warning: the below story discusses eating disorders.
Whether you're recovering from an eating disorder or currently having a difficult relationship with food, knowing what and how much food to eat can be tough. Compound that with diet culture and how it misconstrues "a healthy lifestyle," and anything food-related becomes that much more challenging.
To help people understand what a "healthy" relationship with food can look like, TikTok creators are making "what I eat in a day" videos showing their meals. But are these videos actually harmful to watch? According to three mental health experts who specialize in eating disorders, the answer is yes.
How "what I eat in a day" TikTok videos are harmful:
"They can be harmful to people with and without eating disorders," licensed psychologist, Dr. Rebecca Leslie, tells HelloGiggles. She explains that these videos encourage people to eat a certain way and to look like the creator when bodies don't work that way. "The message is 'These are the foods I eat to have my body look the way it does.' In reality, someone's body size is not just determined by what they eat…Everyone also has different nutrition needs, and some of these videos post eating incredibly low calories, which is particularly not helpful for someone recovering from an eating disorder," she says.
Allie Weiser, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist and education and resources manager at The Alliance For Eating Disorders Awareness, adds that these videos also praise thin bodies and exacerbate the dangers of thin privilege. "These videos perpetuate the "thin ideal" and reinforce the harmful message that to be healthy, attractive, worthy, or successful, one must be thin or in a smaller body. The vast majority of influencers that create these videos often hold thin privilege and live in smaller bodies, which is a body type determined by biological factors and not achievable by efforts to eat a certain way," she says.
Dr. Weiser also pointed out how what we see on TikTok may not be the whole truth. "Social media makes it easy for people to portray themselves as looking and behaving in a certain way that doesn't include the full scope of how they actually lead their lives…These videos create unrealistic standards and promote harmful body and food comparisons, which can contribute to the development of low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental health struggles."
So while some creators are trying to help people recover from eating disorders, they may actually play a role in exacerbating someone's disorder. Eating disorders are competitive mental illnesses that often entail comparison, so when someone sees a creator—in recovery or not—eating less or "healthier," they may feel a need to change their eating, even though bodies have different needs.
Additionally, these videos exhibit a sense of rigidity around food, which is a common and unhealthy eating disorder behavior. "It is rare to hear the posters talk about how they incorporate variety or allow themselves to eat intuitively. For example, what if they just don't feel like having oatmeal for breakfast that day? Do they allow themselves to have something else?" says Fatema Jivanjee-Shakir, a psychotherapist and clinical assessor at The Renfrew Center.
The rigidity doesn't end there, either—it's also present with mealtimes. "Many of the posters also include the timing of their meals in these videos, and do not discuss flexibility with their mealtimes, which can further reinforce rigidity around food," she continues.
In eating disorder recovery, the goal is to eat with flexibility. Dietitian Ellyn Satter wrote a book about "normal eating," and topped off her definition with this: "In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your food, and your feelings." But "what I eat in a day" videos don't always show that.
Last but not least, these videos are often created by white creators with Western foods, which can hurt people of color. "The foods in these videos also lack cultural representation, as they typically include Western foods and lack foods from other cultures and cuisines," Jivanjee-Shakir says. "This can leave people who identify as BIPOC wondering if the only way to be 'healthy' is to eat the way the white women in the videos do."
How to improve these videos, if that's possible:
Clearly, many problems exist with "what I eat in a day" videos and their impact. But can creators improve these videos, or should they throw them out completely?
According to Jivanjee-Shakir, "We need more diversity in terms of race, culture, gender, and body size on this platform. Further, TikTok should adjust its algorithm to help ensure these voices that do represent healthier, diverse relationships with foods, get equal, if not more, visibility."
While Dr. Leslie believes these videos don't need to exist since everyone's body requires different fuels, she suggests making them more realistic. "These videos tend to be nicely plated meals. What about the snacking off your kid's plate, or the French fries you grabbed off a friend's plate? What about the chocolate from the office candy bowl? What about the food you ate while cooking everyone's dinner? It would be nice to see something that included all of this," she says.
And Dr. Weiser believes there's not a way for these videos to exist and not harm others. "In eating disorder recovery, we focus on helping clients develop healthier relationships with food and their bodies. This includes learning to trust your body's hunger and fullness cues and ultimately, consume foods for nourishment, pleasure, and connection with others." Dr. Weiser adds that they also want their clients to understand that their worth has nothing to do with their appearance, body shape and size, or food choices. "The content of these videos goes against everything we try to break clients free from in recovery," she explains.
What to do if you feel triggered:
While these videos are harmful, they're probably not going away. Triggers arise in life, and all we can do is learn how to handle them. If you feel triggered, these experts shared resources and helpful strategies.
Dr. Weiser encourages deep breathing, relaxation techniques, journaling, reading positive self-statements, listening to music, and spending time with your pet. "I always encourage clients to identify potential triggers ahead of time and to create a coping plan in advance for when difficult or intense emotions arise. It is also important to practice these skills regularly, so they become automatic when unexpected triggers occur," she says.
Jivanjee-Shakir suggests skipping the videos altogether and engaging with positive content you like, so TikTok's algorithm will begin to show you videos that are healthy for you. She also mentions diving deeper and acting in ways that align with your values. "Take a deep breath and think about why it is triggering? What does this bring up for you? What does it make you want to do? What are your values and goals, and what choices can you make to stay in alignment with those and prioritize your mental and physical health?" she says.
Dr. Leslie agrees with curating your social media feed and reaching out for support. "I would suggest unfollowing these people and reaching out to a therapist or dietician for support. Think about what is helpful for you on social media and what is less helpful," she says.
As far as resources, Jivanjee-Shakir recommends the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helplines or The Renfrew Center. Dr. Weiser suggests the resources and free, therapist-led, virtual support groups hosted by The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.
Ultimately, know that feeling triggered by these videos is valid—and most importantly, you're stronger. You can handle your emotions and overcome your eating disorder, and you don't have to do it alone.