The most popular TikTok content related to food, nutrition, and weight perpetuates a harmful diet culture among teens and young adults, according to new research from the University of Vermont, and expert voices are largely absent from the conversation.
The study, which was just published in PLOS One, found that TikTok is largely dominated by weight-normative messaging or the notion that a person's weight is the most significant indicator of their health. The most popular videos on TikTok glorify weight loss and present food as a means of achieving health and thinness.
The findings are particularly alarming in light of prior research showing a link between social media use and disordered eating and negative body image in adolescents and young adults.
"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 look at TikTok content on a scale related to nutrition and body image. The conclusions are based on a thorough analysis of the top 100 videos from 10 trending hashtags for nutrition, food, and weight, which were then coded for major themes. When the study started in 2020, each of the 10 hashtags had more than a billion views; the hashtags chosen have increased significantly as TikTok's user base has grown.
"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 '21, who conducted the research as part of her undergraduate thesis at UVM.
The Nutrition and Food Sciences Department at UVM has moved away from a weight-normative mindset in recent years and adopted a weight-inclusive approach to dietetics instruction. The method rejects the notion that there is a "normal" weight that is achievable or realistic for everyone and instead focuses on using non-weight markers of health and well-being to assess a person's health. Pope claims that if society upholds weight normativity, fat bias will continue to exist.
"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."
As a more comprehensive method of assessing someone's health, weight-inclusive nutrition is growing in popularity. Minadeo, a UVM health and society major, and her advisor Pope were curious to learn more about the function of TikTok as a resource for knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating habits. They were shocked to learn that TikTok creators who were thought to be influential in the academic nutrition space weren't having much of an impact on the overall nutrition content landscape.
Most of the content analyzed in the study was produced by white, female adolescents and young adults. The researchers defined expert voices as people who self-identified with credentials like registered dietitians, doctors, or certified trainers. Very few creators met these criteria.
"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.
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