A smoothie, a bowl of strawberries and a burrito. Scroll. A veggie sandwich, a quinoa bowl and clementines. Scroll. A shot of a completely flat stomach, followed by a cup of cereal, half a pizza and a plate of pasta.
If you’re on TikTok, there’s a good chance you’ve come across a “What I Eat in a Day” video. From displaying “health-conscious,” vegan meals devoid of any junk food to “cheat days” decadently spent on burgers, ice cream and cocktails, the viral trend has spurred countless videos. Documenting daily eating habits has exploded in popularity among users, especially young women; the #whatieatinaday hashtag alone has more than 9.1 billion views.
For Sarah Geller, a 22-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., watching these eating-routine videos doesn’t feel great. Having grown up as a high school athlete and in the age of Instagram, she’s had her own struggles with disordered eating and body image, she said. She remembers obsessing over “healthified” recipes on Google, convinced that certain foods were off limits because they weren’t nutritious.
Now, as an aspiring dietitian, she’s worried that young women her age might take the popular TikTok trend out of context, especially when so many “What I Eat in a Day” videos on her feed are created by thin White women and might only be showing a glorified snippet of someone’s real life.
“I love #foodtok social media because I am definitely a self-proclaimed foodie,” Geller said. “But I think that sharing ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos isn’t necessarily productive.” Social media can be “deceiving,” Geller said, and “it’s a potential issue that people posting these aren’t being accurate.”
According to Jacqueline Sperling, program director at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, researchers have different categories for the way users interact with social media. There’s active, self-oriented activities, like updating your profile picture. Then there’s passive, outward-oriented interactions, like scrolling through a news feed or TikTok’s “For You” page. That’s where you see the most social comparison, Sperling said.
“Some people will post things, just snippets of their lives, that are not the full spectrum of their experiences,” Sperling said. But people tend to compare their lives to those snippets, she said, and then “they feel worse about themselves.”
Such can be the case for TikTok food videos, Sperling said. Even when users don’t specifically seek out food videos or “What I Eat in a Day” videos, the algorithm’s suggestions can flood users’ feeds because of a single like or a prolonged pause.
“Someone might have spent more time on [that type of video] because it was disconcerting to them or bothers them, and it made them feel worse. And now all of a sudden they’re going to have more images related to this content,” Sperling said.
It’s not news that social media can have a harmful impact on body image and perception, especially among young women. In September, the Wall Street Journal uncovered internal Facebook documents that revealed the tech giant knew that Instagram was a toxic environment for teenage girls, who often experienced anxiety and body image issues as a result of spending time on the app. Last week, other social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube defended their apps in front of the Senate and said that they’re continually working on protecting young users’ mental health.
On TikTok, at the top of the #whatieatinaday hashtag, there’s a message: “If you or someone you know are experiencing concerns around body image, food, or exercise — it’s important that you know help is out there and that you are not alone.” There’s also a link for users to contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) for support.
But that might not be enough to prevent users from feeling bad about their bodies, experts say. Whether they’re created with unhealthy intentions or not, eating-routine videos can have a long-term impact on users who aren’t confident about their eating habits.
“It’s one thing that there are people who post recipes to have inspiration in the kitchen. It’s another thing when we’re talking about food intake monitoring and someone is feeling guilty for what they’re eating if it’s different than what someone else is posting,” Sperling said.
When asked for comment, TikTok directed The Lily to its work with NEDA and its safety center guide on eating disorders.
“We will keep working to refine our policy against content promoting or glorifying eating disorders, improve our ability to identify harmful content so that it can be quickly removed, and develop creative ways to advocate for our community,” TikTok said in the newsroom post.
Experts say there’s a spectrum of how this trend can give rise to body image issues, old and new. For those who have already struggled with eating disorders, seeing “What I Eat in a Day” videos can trigger even more unhealthy eating habits, according to Allison Chase, a clinical psychologist and regional clinical director for Eating Recovery Center Pathlight in the Texas region. For others who had never questioned their eating habits before downloading the app, there’s the potential for eating disorders that might not have existed beforehand.
There’s a “constant comparison” that happens when these videos appear in an endless scroll, Chase added, which can lead to “a lot of really negative emotions.” Anxiety or depression can then give rise to unhealthy coping strategies, she said, including eating disorders.
Geller believes the videos could be less damaging if users added disclaimers to their “What I Eat in a Day” videos to emphasize how everybody’s individual needs are unique. She also thinks it could be healthier to share recipes or one meal the user loves instead of documenting an entire day. Although she’s come a long way in her journey with food, she said, inadvertently seeing food content can still be difficult.
“I’m not immune to those first reactions, the negative thoughts and self-talk in my head about my own body,” Geller said.
Chase is wary about whether users can ever interact with food content in a healthy way, especially with TikTok’s fast-paced format.
“It becomes very hard to be able to really be able to see balance and health within it, because there’s something more sensational about some of the things that are displayed,” Chase said. “I think it’s ideal if posting a video is to be able to show the balance and all sides, and to talk about it. I just don’t think that that’s going to be realistic on these platforms, nor necessarily what people are going to tune into.”
But some creators like Zoe Potter believe that seeing others’ eating routines online can help some people with their own relationships with food. In fact, she thinks that if TikTok would’ve been around when she was younger, she could have confronted her body image issues a lot earlier.
“I feel better when I see people eating and consuming and being real. It gave me a sense of normalcy, it gave me a sense of comfort,” Potter said.
At the same time, Potter acknowledges that these kinds of videos might not be as helpful for people who can be triggered by seeing others eat. For her, it’s about curating the kind of content you want to see on the app and taking steps to follow accounts that have a positive impact.
“When I was going through the beginning of my journey, I needed to be very specific about the content I consumed,” Potter said. “You have to find your crowd, and you have to find what works for you.”