Historically, food has held a type of symbolism within our society as a way to bring people together, to celebrate and to have fun. The idea of food serving solely as fuel is an analogy that disregards one important factor – human nature. Humans are complex beings and why we eat what we do isn’t just because we need the nutrients. With the advent of the internet and proliferation of social media, we are in possession of more information than we have ever been able to consume, including a number of seemingly new ideas when it comes to healthy eating. So, let’s explore whether social media has really changed the way we approach healthy eating.
Social media has changed how we interact.
Social media has opened up a whole new creative outlet for millions of people. People are able to connect with one another through a number of mediums, most popularly via images. Food photography has become increasingly popular, with #food alone amassing over 190 million posts on Instagram. With so many users submitting a diverse range of images, for many uploading photos of their food now comes with a set of guidelines to create the perfect snap suitable for social media. While social media is an amazing technology that creates millions of new connections and opportunities it has also served as a hub for self-styled wellness experts to proliferate their own dietary ethos. Popular photos often contain an abundance of fresh produce but don’t include other vital parts of a balanced diet like adequate protein or calcium. This approach can misconstrue the idea of a balanced approach to eating, perpetuating the notion that to truly eat healthily you must maintain a strict diet. Social media provides a platform for anyone who wants to supply nutrition advice whether or not they are accurately qualified to. Being qualified in nutrition used to be a highly selective profession, requiring excellence in undergraduate and masters nutrition degrees. Now the quality of the industry is diluted through unregulated courses and diplomas which are willing to teach information that isn’t backed by peer reviewed evidence. By using social media, self-appointed health experts with no academically accredited qualifications are able to provide advice to more people than ever before, creating a new challenge for qualified experts. While it can certainly be interesting to read about an individual’s personal experience with food, too often experience this is confused for evidence towards highly specific and sometimes untested dietary habits.
Social media has changed what we think.
It’s clear that social media has been a profound influence on what people choose to eat and how they choose to live. In the past, food trends were extracted from magazines or newspapers and referred to as ‘fads’ or ‘crazes’. Now with a platform like social media people are able to engage with others about their food preferences and discuss new approaches to eating. Traditional notions of a healthy diet have been scrapped for a number of different schools of thought, each with a different idea of the foods to eat or exclude to obtain optimum health. Much of the advice espoused by online ‘influencers’ tends to be inextricably linked to wealth and virtue. Following health trends like sipping green smoothies has become a way of not only signifying that you have money but also a way of illustrating to your following that you spend it on the ‘right’ stuff. On social media, healthy eating has become synonymous with nourishing your body and living your life in expensive, ‘gramable ways. For example, the ‘clean eating’ trend which claims the way to optimum health is through choosing specifically healthy foods and avoiding processed, junk foods that are readily available. Clean eating is often touted as a ‘lifestyle change’ rather than another restrictive diet in an effort to distance itself from other concepts of healthy eating. However, this trend has recently sparked backlash with many wondering whether the notion of clean eating is simply a diet by another name. Certainly, the label of clean eating has become an explanation for obsessive food behaviours and sometimes even dangerously restrictive eating patterns. The human mind is innately wired to reach for simple explanations rather than measured, thoughtful ones which has further contributed to the proliferation of the healthy-eating guru. This phenomenon is explained within Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ which highlights why our brains find it easier to accept the simpler explanation for whatever issues we face. For example, when asked what constitutes a ‘healthy’ food a dietitian might answer that no food is innately healthy or unhealthy and instead of using polarising language around the food we eat we should take a more balanced approach to what we eat. Conversely, a self-styled guru might suggest that foods like sugar and grains are to blame for ill-health. It is our instinctive attraction to these simple, easy to digest messages which have contributed to the rise of self-appointed nutrition gurus. Even though simply publishing a pretty picture of your avo-toast may seem like another innocent way to express certain lifestyle choices on social media, recent psychological studies suggest that online food obsession is an increasing problem.
Social media has changed how we act.
These food trends have ushered in an age of increasing scrutiny of our dietary choices which is supported through worrying statistics. The promotion of specific dietary habits espoused by some food bloggers has increasingly become more problematic with young, vulnerable individuals. Increasingly, psychologists and other medical experts are expressing issues with the negative impacts these evangelical messages have. The extreme versions of these specific food fixations have seen a rise in various kinds of eating disorders including an extreme psychological condition called orthorexia. Currently, orthorexia does not have a clinical diagnosis as its field of research is only emerging however it is thought to be closely connected with OCD and shares behavioural traits with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Social media has altered our ideas about what is healthy and what isn’t and illustrated that confusion with health and nutrition is rife. Research conducted by Holland et al. found that participants who engaged in posting ‘fitspiration’ messages (a trend advocating eating healthily and exercising) scored significantly higher than their counterparts in the categories “drive for thinness, drive for muscularity, and compulsive exercise”.Holland G, Tiggemann M. “Strong beats skinny every time”: Disordered eating and compulsive exercise in women who post fitspiration on Instagram. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2016 Jun 1. Furthermore, the research found that almost a fifth of these women were at risk for clinical eating disorders. The link between media literacy and body satisfaction was explored by McClean et al. Their research illustrated the far-reaching implications of media messages with those who closely attended to certain medias reporting higher body dissatisfaction.McLean SA, Paxton SJ, Wertheim EH. The role of media literacy in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: A systematic review. Body Image. 2016 Dec 31;19:9-23. Moreover, their research displayed the positive impact of media literacy based interventions to promote scepticism to avoid misunderstanding and reduce high body dissatisfaction reports.
The advent of social media has changed the way we connect with one another in marvellous ways. It’s an exciting new medium with endless possibilities, but with all new technology, there needs to be a healthy dose of reflection and evaluation. It is clear that we need to evaluate the messages being proliferated about healthy eating, focusing on evidenced based practice over general advice. Despite all I’ve said, I enjoy posting images of food as much as the next person, but it’s time to take a look at the way we use social media and evaluate whether the message we are putting out is truly ‘healthy’.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪||Holland G, Tiggemann M. “Strong beats skinny every time”: Disordered eating and compulsive exercise in women who post fitspiration on Instagram. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2016 Jun 1.|
|2.||⇪||McLean SA, Paxton SJ, Wertheim EH. The role of media literacy in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: A systematic review. Body Image. 2016 Dec 31;19:9-23.|