Social media plays an important role in how we view our society across many fields -- and dietetics is no exception. Each day we are ambushed by pictures, videos, reports, and articles that declare which foods to eat and which foods to fear. For some, social media may have a minimal impact on their eating behaviours while for others it could lead to restrictive and even fatal eating disorders.
Adolescent females are especially susceptible to the negative effects of social media. According to research, greater Instagram use for women between the ages of 18 and 25 was linked to increased levels of self-objectification and body image concerns (1). This was especially true for women who regularly viewed fitspiration images. Self-objectification refers to when people start to view their body as an object, and like body image concerns, it is associated with depression and eating disorders (2).
Many people are aware of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, but social media has fuelled the flame for a less commonly known eating disorder called orthorexia. People with orthorexia have an unhealthy fixation on “healthy eating” which ultimately damages their well-being (3). It involves restricting the amount and variety of food that is eaten and can lead to anorexia – which has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses (4). Users of social media are especially susceptible to orthorexia since the content is often unrealistic or restrictive. It is not uncommon to see posts about fad diets, ‘magical’ fitness products, and information about what and when you should eat. Sadly, it is the extreme and controversial content that spreads the quickest on social media and health-conscious people are more likely to view it. What is especially concerning for many medical professionals is how anyone can make nutritional claims on social media. Many people that post about their diet and lifestyle are not licensed professionals and do not have the certification to be making dietary recommendations.
However, not all media is bad, and avoiding all media sources would be near to impossible in todays’ society. Here are a few things to consider while viewing nutrition information on social media.
Is the source reliable? Check for credentials and try to get information from people that work for professional health organizations such as: Dietitians of Canada, Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, Diabetes Canada, and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre
What emotions do you experience? Does the content make you feel overwhelmed, fearful, confused, or inadequate? Is it a source of comparison? If the content creates negative emotions, then it might be something to avoid.
Does it promote restrictive or obsessive behaviour? Many posts promote limiting or cutting out certain foods which can lead to malnutrition if taken too far. Even if the content is good-natured, an overload of information can lead to obsession.
It is a source of negative comparison? Media images have been carefully constructed and are not reflections of reality. Comparing ourselves can lead to negative body image and unhappiness (5).
Is there diversity within the content? Is the content only limited to one cuisine or culture? Is your culture represented? Viewing and eating food that reflects your values and lifestyle is something to consider.
Fardouly J, Willburger BK, Vartanian LR. Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways. New Media & Society. 2018;20(4):1380-1395. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817694499
Schaefer, L. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2018). Self-objectification and disordered eating: A meta-analysis. The International journal of eating disorders, 51(6), 483–502. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22854
National Eating Disorders Association. (2019, December 13). Orthorexia. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia
Insel, T. (2012, February 24). Spotlight on eating disorders. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2012/spotlight-on-eating-disorders.shtml#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20most%20fatal,rate%20of%20around%2010%20percent.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1997). Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(6), 1141-1157. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061