As humans, we’re naturally voyeuristic. Hello, that’s why reality TV exists, y’all! A little spying on other people in their natural habitats is, at this point, a pretty significant part of our culture. But as a registered dietitian, I’ve noticed that when it comes to health, wellness, and diet, harmless voyeurism can evolve into comparing oneself to influencers and bloggers, following their advice, and sometimes mimicking their lifestyles, and I’ve seen it get unhealthy. That’s why I want to chat about “what I eat” or “what I eat in a day” content. I’m sure you’ve seen it: It’s photos, videos, and stories shot by bloggers and influencers to display their food intake over the course of a typical day. They’re usually colorful photos of neatly plated food on a visually appealing background (a beautifully appointed kitchen, a weathered wood table, a marble countertop). Sometimes they’re labeled with calorie information, too. Oftentimes they’re themed—maybe they’re focused on weight loss, or eating vegan, or body composition, etc.
Ostensibly, these posts are meant to inspire followers to “eat healthy,” but does following accounts like these have a downside? What if looking at videos and photos about other people’s diets isn’t actually as motivating or inspiring as we want to believe? While social media can have positive effects, some research has suggested that there is in fact a relationship between time spent on social media and poor body image and self-esteem, and symptoms of disordered eating. As a dietitian who has worked with hundreds of clients, I’ve seen many people go down a spiral of comparing themselves to influencers that post this kind of content. And from what I see, it contributes to or compounds their anxieties about their bodies and how they eat. Here’s why I don’t recommend following these accounts (or at least, what you should keep in mind when looking at them).
1. They don't tell the whole story.
What these videos and images don't show is the poster’s off-camera life, which might be dramatically different than what we see in their feeds. So, we have no idea if the person actually eats what they post, if their diet overall reflects what they're presenting, or how they feel about their diet and eating habits. All we see is content that’s been curated to tell a very specific story, the one the creator wants you to know. Who knows if that story is true, or if all of it is?
Beyond that, even if what you see is all true and representative of the person’s real life, and they are actually happy and healthy (physically and emotionally) with the way they live, that still doesn’t mean that watching their feeds is going to make you healthy and happy too. In my experience, diet and body comparison doesn’t make anyone any happier or healthier, only worse. The outcome? Feeling bad about yourself and your diet, most likely. (I have yet to see any other outcome in this situation.)
2. They can be full of faulty nutrition advice.
Lots of this content focuses on so-called healthy eating. Of course I love when people eat nutritious food, but not so much when they’re also doling out a side dish of nutrition advice that they’re not equipped to provide. I’ve seen too many influencers who are not trained in nutrition pontificate about “detoxifying” and “fat-burning” foods, and the supplements and protein powders they post pics of on the daily. There’s a lot of inaccurate nutrition information on the Internet; be skeptical of nutrition buzzwords like clean, detox, and fat-burning or metabolism boosting.
3. And they’re often based on toxic attitudes about food and eating.
"Clean eating" and "cheat day" are two of the most common phrases I’ve seen on “what I eat” social media. I’ve never liked the phrase “clean eating,” first because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Who can say what “clean” really means? More important, it assigns a moral value to food and by extension to the people who eat or don’t eat those foods. If you eat clean, you’re being good. If you eat dirty, you’re being bad. I’ve only seen this good-bad binary make people feel deprived and bad about themselves and also stuck in rigid rule sets.
As far as cheat days, we have that morality issue again. Has the word cheat ever been associated with anything good? Probably not. The word cheat insinuates that whatever we eat on that day is bad. Since, in my opinion, there’s no such thing as good or bad foods, this is problematic for me. I also have to mention that I’ve seen people use cheat days as a way to justify restricting their calories on some days and eating until they’re physically and emotionally uncomfortable on their cheat days. This is just not a healthy way to relate to food.
And honestly, we even have to unpack the word healthy, since it can mean so many different things, particularly depending on context. For example, I think it’s healthy to eat vegetables and whole grains. I also think it’s healthy to eat dessert. See? Lots of influencers toss around the idea of healthy without specifying what they mean or unpacking how complex it can be.
4. They're a lesson in just about every kind of privilege, but that privilege is never addressed.
The vast majority of these posts are made by people who check all the boxes of privilege, and therefore are part of mainstream culture (at least in the U.S. and Canada, where I’m from): people who are normatively attractive (usually feminine), thin, white, who have sparkling kitchens, fancy supplements, perfectly blown-out hair, and (seemingly) no need for a nine-to-five job. To say that they are a tiny non-representative sampling of the population is an understatement.
It seems like the underlying message of these videos is that healthy and well means looking like these bloggers, that wellness means being white, thin, affluent, and able-bodied; and having the time to leisurely eat avocado toast in a gorgeous kitchen every morning. It’s made to look so easy, effortless, and “normal,” but it’s not. Normative, maybe. Not normal per se.
For the rest of us who are wiping kid barf off our clothes and taking the bus to work, the disparity between these influencers’ lifestyles and ours is overwhelming.
5. An unattainable standard packaged with a positive message isn’t empowering.
Just like so much fitspo, this content perniciously offers “positive” messages about healthy eating. They’re supposed to inspire you to shop, prep, cook, and eat more healthily—the idea being that if you do that, you’ll look like the influencer and have their life, too, flawless skin and hair, sparkling appliances, and tons of social privilege included. But here’s the thing: In my experience, that’s just not going to happen. And beyond that, why should I even want that? Why can’t I eat a healthy, nutritious diet and be who I already am? What is objectively better about this other person?
In real life, most of us can't mimic what we see on these videos, since we have actual jobs and kids and messy hair and dishes in the sink. Not only that, we shouldn’t feel like we need to be or look like anyone but ourselves just to be healthy and well, to eat nutritious food, and to feel good about our bodies. To me, it’s a lot of false advertising, with angles and blowouts and food that may never get eaten. You’re more interesting than that!
Abby Langer has been a registered dietitian since 1999. Educated at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Loyola University in Chicago, Abby has worked extensively both in clinical nutrition and nutrition media and consulting. She has won awards for her teaching and has served for three years on her regulatory college’s council. Abby is passionate about all aspects of nutrition, from physiology to teaching to cooking. Her approach to nutrition is permissive and relaxed, and she is a true believer in living your best life without dieting. Abby’s counseling and writings focus on body respect and intuitive-style eating. She has written in depth about debunking fad diets and nutrition myths. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.