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When social media plays havoc with eating - how dietitians can help

The Four Corners investigation into TikTok aired in July was a grim reminder of the power that social media can have on our health.

“I'd like to think that I wouldn't have struggled with an eating disorder if I hadn't downloaded TikTok,” said trainee midwife Lauren Hemmings in an interview for Four Corners.

By harvesting personal data and using algorithms to target users, big social media companies are controlling the content of user feeds, according to the investigation - and in Lauren’s case TikTok’s algorithm had flooded her feed with content promoting unhealthy weight loss, nudging her into meticulously tracking how many calories she ate each day.

“Before TikTok, calorie counting had never crossed my path,” she told Four Corners, yet after four months on TikTok, Lauren was diagnosed with an eating disorder. She’s not alone - a failure to restrict access to videos promoting unhealthy weigh loss methods has become a growing problem during the coronavirus pandemic according to the Butterfly Foundation.

How can dietitians help clients cope with this kind of manipulation?

Ask questions about social media use as part of our clinical assessment - it’s a topic they’re unlikely to consider raising themselves.

If they’re concerned that their social media feeds could be a negative influence you could suggest some of the strategies listed below. They might also like to check out The Social Dilemma on Netflix 

  • Tighten your privacy settings
  • Limit the time you spend on platforms
  • Look objectively at the content of your social media feeds - carefully consider whether you need each one
  • Consider how each of the sites or people you look at  make you feel - and unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself

Encourage clients to build a healthier social media feed

These online resources have good tips:

Jo Money, a Melbourne-based APD specialising in eating disorders, has collated a helpful list of positive people and groups.

For those who are becoming overly influenced by social media’s  portrayal of food and body image, US dietitian Kara Lydon’s website has tips for deciding who to unfollow including:

  • Anyone who talks about diets, weight loss, ‘lifestyle programs’  like Whole 30, detoxes, cleanses, juicing, etc.
  • Anyone talking about dieting under the guise of health and wellness – i.e. self-care to change your body size is not self-care.
  • Anyone who posts before/after pictures or pictures of their bodies that reinforce the socially acceptable thin ideal.
  • Anyone who promotes ‘clean eating’ or who only posts pictures of salads and smoothie bowls.
  • Anyone who posts their unrealistic workout routines and pictures of themselves ‘killing it’ at the gym.
  • Anyone you  compare yourself to  who makes you feel worse about yourself

For people with a history of eating disorders, the US-based Eating Disorders Hope website suggests:

  • Know your triggers – understanding what triggers your symptoms can help you recognize the content you should avoid.
  • Do not follow certain accounts. It can be tempting to follow accounts promoting weight loss and dieting. However, you should avoid any content that could be damaging to your recovery.
  • Use the ‘not interested’ button. If you see a triggering video, use TikTok’s ‘not interested’ button (represented by a broken heart) under the share options. This tells the algorithm not to show you content like this again.
  • Report unhealthy content. You can help protect yourself and fellow users by reporting potentially unhealthy and dangerous videos.
  • Take a break from your account. Sometimes it can be hard to avoid triggering, and the best thing to do is take a break from TikTok to focus on your recovery.
  • Seek additional support. You should always take eating disorder symptoms seriously. Support is available if you are struggling to control your symptoms.