TikTok promotes 'toxic' diet culture, glorifies weight loss among teens and adults – study

Many of the popular TikTok videos glorified weight loss and talked about food as a way to achieve thinness.
Many of the popular TikTok videos glorified weight loss and talked about food as a way to achieve thinness.
Getty Images/Vaselena
  • TikTok can be fun and is a great outlet to showcase your creativity.
  • But the popular entertainment app that delivers interesting and unique information can also fuel toxic trends.
  • In a new analysis related to diet and nutrition, researchers found multiple problematic videos that can contribute to negative body image.

TikTok's short-form videos are the coolest and greatest way for people to learn new life hacks, but just like a lot of the information you find on the internet, not everything should be taken at face value - especially when it comes to diet and nutrition advice.

In a new University of Vermont report, researchers studying popular  trends say they're perpetuating a "toxic diet culture" among teenagers and young adults.

The team searched for the most viewed content on TikTok relating to nutrition and weight and said that these videos paint an "unrealistic and inaccurate picture", which could contribute to eating disorders and negative body image. 

READ MORE | Butter beware of infections: What an expert says about newest online fad

Commenting in a news release on the study, co-author and senior researcher Lizzy Pope said:

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. Getting stuck in weight loss TikTok can be a really tough environment, especially for the main users of the platform, which are young people.

Glorifying weight loss

Their comprehensive analysis, the first of its kind, involved studying the top 100 videos from popular nutrition, food and weight-related hashtags, which they then coded for key themes. Each of the hashtags had over a billion views when the study began in 2020 and has grown significantly since then.

tiktok trends
Sampling of TikTok videos analysed in the study.

READ MORE | 'Very dangerous': Experts warn against these 7 viral TikTok 'wellness' trends

Worryingly, many of the popular videos glorify weight loss and talk about food as a way to achieve thinness, they found.

"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.

Pope, who is associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at UVM, believes that if society continues to perpetuate weight normativity, we're ultimately perpetuating fat bias.

"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."

Lacking trusted, expert voices

Minadeo and Pope, themselves TikTok users, were surprised that TikTok creators - considered to be influencers in the academic nutrition space - were not making a dent in the overall landscape of nutrition content.

Even more concerning was that very few creators dishing out advice were considered expert voices, meaning  they were not registered dietitians, doctors or certified trainers.

READ MORE | 'Skin cycling': the latest TikTok trend we can get behind

Considering nearly 40% of Gen Z prefers searching on TikTok and Instagram instead of Google Search, as stated by a Google senior vice president earlier this year, the findings should be taken seriously.

"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."

Their findings appear in the journal PLOS One

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.