Well-Being Mental Health

TikTok perpetuates unhealthy diet culture among teens, young adults: study

“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.”
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The Associated Press/Kiichiro Sato

Story at a glance

  • The study is the first of its kind to evaluate the association between disordered eating and body image with TikTok content.

  • Researchers found the majority of problematic posts were created by young, white females, while professional voices did not have a strong presence.

  • Around 67 percent of U.S. teens report using TikTok in 2022. 

TikTok helps perpetuate a toxic diet culture among teens and young adults and could contribute to disordered eating and body dissatisfaction in this user base, according to new research released Wednesday.

The app is one of the most popular social media platforms among young Americans, with 67 percent of teens reporting using the platform in 2022. 

Study findings were published in the journal PLOS One and explored the content of food, nutrition and weight-related posts on the app.

Researchers from the University of Vermont assessed 1,000 TikTok videos from 10 popular hashtags related to these topics, each with more than 1 billion views. Videos were then assessed for key themes, including the glorification of weight loss, positioning of food to achieve health and thinness and lack of expert voices providing nutrition information. 

Nutrition-related, weight-normative messaging, or the idea that weight is the most important measure of one’s health, was prominent among the posts, while the most popular videos glorified weight loss, according to the research. Less than 3 percent of videos were classified as weight-inclusive. 

Many posts also considered food as a means to achieve health and fitness. Expert voices that could dispel harmful information on the topics were largely absent from the online conversation, according to the study. 

“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 study co-author Lizzy Pope in a release. Pope is an associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at the University of Vermont. 

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

As many as 30 million Americans currently have an eating disorder, 95 percent of whom are between the ages 12 and 25. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated eating disorder rates among young adults and teens.

Previous research has also revealed an association between diet culture, weight normativity, and the thin ideal seen on other social media platforms with negative body image and disordered eating, authors said.

The majority of posts included in the TikTok study — the first of its kind — were created by white, female adolescents and young adults. Although females are more likely than males to experience an eating disorder, transgender individuals are more likely than their cisgender counterparts to experience the disorders.

Similar rates of eating disorders have been reported across races, though people of color are much less likely to receive help for the conditions than white patients. 

Researchers carried out the TikTok study in 2020 but note the hashtags included have grown substantially since the time of the research. 

“We were continuously surprised by how prevalent the topic of weight was on TikTok,” said co-author Marisa Minadeo. “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.” 

A spokesperson from TikTok pointed out the company has taken steps to restrict content on the platform that focuses on disordered eating since 2020.

“We’re making this change, in consultation with eating disorders experts, researchers, and physicians, as we understand that people can struggle with unhealthy eating patterns and behavior without having an eating disorder diagnosis,” the company said in an update issued this past February.

TikTok is also testing how it can avoid recommending a series of harmful content to users including that related to dieting and extreme fitness, while the company says it’ll provide the National Eating Disorders Association helpline when users search phrases related to eating disorders.

A series of public safety announcements, developed with input from the Association, also appear on eating disorder-related hashtags, the company said. TikTok notes it has also partnered and consulted with organizations around the world to raise awareness of disordered eating.

When it comes to providing care for those with eating disorders, shifting away from a weight-normative approach to a weight-inclusive one, where health and well-being is measured through a multifaceted approach, can help reduce weight stigma, PLOS One researchers explained.  

“The weight-inclusive view of health recognizes that bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and believes that people in all body sizes can achieve health if given the opportunity to pursue health behaviors and access to non-stigmatizing health care,” they wrote. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, help is available here.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 3 with comments from TikTok.