The growing disaster that is #FoodTok

Sarah O’Donohoe takes a look at the harmful food trends that we consume on TikTok as they increase in volume and popularity across the widely used platform

TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. Its short-form relatable style of content sets it apart from other social media platforms, such as YouTube and  Instagram, which are often perceived as places to find more formal or heavily edited content. Users seek refuge in TikTok’s easily digestible content and get drawn into the app by extremely user-specific algorithms, resulting in a perfectly curated-for-you page. It’s fun, enticing, and can show you exactly the type of content you want to see. 

#Foodtok has exploded on the platform, but as with everything on the internet, it has recently begun to unveil a more sinister side.  What originally started as innocent and genuinely helpful content, where users could find easy-to-cook recipes, what I eat in a day videos. and other sources of meal inspiration, has now evolved into an echo chamber further promoting disordered eating and distorted body images. There are content creators purposefully using TikTok as their vice, spreading harmful content in the hopes of furthering their unsustainable lifestyles, to the detriment of an impressionable audience.

TikTok has become a breeding ground for the spread of harmful misinformation and nutritional advice. From unqualified fitness coaches,  ‘what I eat in a day videos’ and mukbangs, they have all already left a rotten taste in the mouth of an impressionable audience. ‘What I eat in a day’ videos consist of photos/videos of people’s snacks and meals throughout the day. While some people use these videos as a genuine source of inspiration for meal ideas and recipes, especially for those with restricted diets such as veganism or celiac disease, this style of content can often be a trigger to those who struggle with disordered eating, whether that be a purposeful impact of the video or not. On the more extreme side of things, videos including tremendously low-calorie counts that would be below the recommended caloric intake for that of a toddler, counting cigarettes for dinner, and black coffee with a plain rice cake as dessert, are ever increasing in popularity, and gaining a lot of traction on the app.

The visual and psychological impact of such content can be significant, potentially influencing vulnerable individuals, distorting their perception of beauty and self-worth in exceedingly harmful ways”

“Bodychecking” frequently accompanies these videos, where individuals meticulously inspect their bodies in mirrors or other reflective surfaces, reinforcing the notion in the viewer’s mind that by adhering to a similar diet or lifestyle, they too could attain a similar appearance. This content bears a striking resemblance to the thinspo (thin inspiration) culture that gained prominence in the 2013 Tumblr era, and there are concerns that it might inadvertently contribute to the resurgence of ‘pro-ana’ rhetoric among a new generation of adolescents. The visual and psychological impact of such content can be significant, potentially influencing vulnerable individuals, distorting their perception of beauty and self-worth in exceedingly harmful ways. This type of content can infiltrate the minds of the viewer, encouraging disordered eating, and lead to the never-ending pursuit of thinness; which is something that has disastrous impacts on the lives of many. 

This is having a similar influence on ‘gym-tok’. Unqualified fitness influencers promote absurd nutrition advice to an impressionable audience, when they are in fact on steroids injections to maintain their own physique. An example of this can be demonstrated by Tiktok user Brian Johnson, also known as ‘The Liver King’. Brian originally attributed his muscular physique to his raw carnivore diet, but was later found out to be using steroids. 

Despite what these fitness influencers might lead one to believe, it is quite simply impossible to gain 50lbs of lean muscle mass overnight, just by eating chicken and rice alone. This type of content leads to the promotion of orthorexia in particular, an eating disorder whereby an individual has an obsession with only eating healthy foods. When people see someone with a so-called ‘healthy’ physique promoting these unsustainable practices, it further perpetuates the normalisation of disordered eating, in a way that just isn’t talked about enough. Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders don’t have a certain type of ‘look’; and a ‘gym bro’ is just as likely to fall victim to this type of harmful content as anybody else. 

Mukbangs are a form of food-related content whereby the host consumes various types of food while interacting with the audience. The videos generally consist of people eating excessively large quantities of food in one sitting. While they can be satisfying to watch, and interesting especially when people create interesting meals or meals from various cuisines, oftentimes, these mukbangs contain videos of people’s vast amounts of fast food, to the point where it’s causing these creators serious harm. American internet personality Nikado Avocado attributed his over 200 pound weight gain to creating these types of videos, and in the pursuit of fame and views, caused himself grievous bodily harm. Mukbangs have begun to normalise binge and restrict cycles, as creators often boast about fasting in the lead up to their gigantic feast.

While TikTok’s ever increasing popularity has been beneficial in certain regards, in truth its content is simply too unregulated. The negative influences of this have been exemplified on #Foodtok. From “what I eat in a day” videos containing nothing but chicken and rice, or a black cup of coffee and a cigarette for dessert, to fitness influencers promoting raw carnivorism, to mukbangs normalising binge eating in the pursuit of views, there’s a clear need for caution when consuming food-related content on TikTok.

While TikTok can be a source of inspiration and creativity, it’s essential to remember that not all content is created equal. As consumers, we should try to use our best judgement and critical thinking when engaging with food-related videos on the platform. It’s crucial to prioritise our own physical and mental health, as well as our well-being, over fleeting trends and sensational content. By taking what we see on #Foodtok with a grain of salt, we can make more informed choices about our diets and promote a healthier online culture.