10 calorie jelly, matcha, low calorie hot chocolate, and coconut oil are just some of the 'superfoods' we've seen shared rapidly across Instagram by influencers as a perfect accompaniment to support your diet and health.
I want to start by reiterating that it’s ok to eat these foods IF you genuinely enjoy them and you aren’t using them as a means of restricting common alternatives from your diet. If you use agave syrup because it tastes good but you aren’t avoiding normal white sugar, and you dabble with coconut oil as well as other oils that is great, but if these foods have meant you’ve cut other sources from your diet as a means of ‘clean eating’ then this is something to be addressed.
In the UK, the health and wellness industry is worth over £20 billion, and influencers are a key driver of this. Part of an influencer’s job can be to promote brands which for some does include ‘health’ products but, for largely they’re not qualified experts sharing evidence based advice.
Instagram has fuelled inspiration and for many changed the way we view and eat food. With this there has lead to normalisation of food rules with restrictive or clean eating practices, suggesting there is a socially acceptable way to micromanage our bodies, conforming to a standard that in a lot of cases is unrealistic.
The likes of ‘what I eat in a day’ videos may allow some people to develop an ‘eat like me, look like me’ mentality and determine what and how much we eat, adding pressure to look as fit and healthy as possible and to show this comes from hard work not genetics.
Ditch the diet culture
So, despite the health and wellness boom, why then has obesity been on the rise since 1993 and disordered eating now thought to affect 50-75% of women, and over 40% of 16 year old adolescents?
Food rules put certain ‘guilty’ foods on a pedestal, which ultimately leads to cravings. Whereas if you allow yourself to eat all foods you are likely to not be affected by cravings. An analogy to consider is the ‘cow in a field’ - when a cow is first released into a field of lush green grass they become overly excited and eat large quantities but over time they become more comfortable and graze as the grass isn’t restricted anymore.
We are not biologically evolved to diet. If you have to engage in restriction or disordered eating to maintain your weight, it’s not the weight your body is most comfortable at. 70% of our weight is determined by genetic factors. Genetically determined weight is called set point weight (varies by 4-5kg). When you lose too much weight your brain will respond by using measures to push your body back to normal.
Social comparison and distorted reality
Before social media, comparison for some may have only been with those who surround you, but now there is the ability to compare with millions across the globe online, every day. A huge statistic is that 88% of people on social media engage in social comparisons and 98% of those are upward (people doing ‘better’ than us).
Then comes the problem of confirmation bias. If you follow a lot of ‘fitspo’, ‘clean eating’ influencers, this can easily have an impact on your feed and shape your opinions. The majority of content could be workouts, certain dietary trends or beach body related which can distort reality and change your mindset.
It’s easy to believe that everybody but you is eating avocado on sourdough or smoothie bowls but what we don’t see is the soggy cereal or pasta bowls. Registered dietitians can confirm that these breakfasts are still just as nutritious, and won’t break the bank. So many cereals are fortified with minerals and vitamins, and the nutritional benefits often outweigh the sugar content.
Misinformation on Instagram is rife
Sadly there is still limited evidence based advice on Instagram. Dietitians are the only nutrition professionals to be regulated by law, so you do need to do your research as online nutrition courses are available from £29 and can be copleted in a matter of weeks. If you are looking to work with a nutritionist, those who are qualified to degree level will have ‘RNutr’ or ‘ANutr’ in their title.
Renee McGregor, a leading sports dietitian, specialising in Eating Disorders, who has worked with the Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth teams has commented said 'One of the big concerns is the amount of unregulated and unqualified advice that is on social media. While I’m sure those that provide the advice do not intend on it being deceptive or false, the very fact that they do not have credible qualifications in nutrition and thus the ability to critically appraise the research means they often cherry pick advice that validates their beliefs and experience; but also sums down the complexity of nutritional science. My advice generally is if it sounds “too good to be true” it probably is. Where possible take advice from registered dieticians and nutritionists and check out how long they’ve been qualified, their experience but also their past history. While again, I appreciate it comes from a place of concern and a real want to help, many newly qualified nutrition practitioners have often had their own recent experience of eating issues. Personally, I feel there should be some regulation on the length of time between being truly recovered from an eating disorder and being able to give advice.'
It’s an unfortunate truth that the next generation of dieters will rely largely on the filtered instagram stories of personal trainers for nutritional guidance rather than dietetic experts. 90% of 18-24 year olds would trust medical information they find on social media. That’s concerning. I want to take this opportunity to myth-bust common health and wellness claims:
● Juices and cleanses can’t detox you - only the liver and kidneys can.
● Unrefined sugar isn’t a thing - chemically speaking, sugar is sugar - it doesn’t matter if it comes from sugar cane, honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar. It all behaves in the same way in the body and is released just as quickly. While things like coconut sugar may contain marginally more nutrients per 100g table sugar, the amount you’d need to eat to get those benefits negates them anyway.
● ‘Superfood’ is a marketing term - nutrients found in these foods are also found in others e.g. rocket, watercress and broccoli all contain same nutrients as kale
● Spirulina is under researched - further studies are needed to prove the bioavailability of spirulina. We currently have no idea how much of it you need to eat to reap the supposed health benefits of calcium, potassium, iron etc.
● ‘Energy booster’ and ‘immune booster’ are made up terms - all food ‘boosts’ energy and a ‘boosted’ immune system is one that overreacts to foods or other substances resulting in inflammation
● There are no proven benefits of lemon in water
● Fat-free is not necessarily healthier. Without fat, other things will be added to make your foods tasty and filling, which is usually a form of sugar. You’ll end up eating more to feel satisfied
● Celery juice was founded by Anthony William, aka the Medical Medium, a man with zero qualifications
‘Clean eating’ won’t make you happy
From 2010-2016, when the clean eating and wellness culture peaked, hospital admissions for eating disorders doubled.
Clinicians are now reporting an increase in orthorexia, an eating disorder categorised by an obsession with healthy eating, with many eliminating entire food groups from their diet as a form of ‘detox’ or ‘cleanse’. Ultimately, this lifestyle leads to nutrient deficiencies, anxiety, and social isolation in some cases.
How much time do you waste worrying about your weight, your appearance, the food you eat, the food you don’t eat and the amount of exercise you have or haven't done? It is important to ask how much of that stuff is actually making you happy versus being anxious and obsessive about every mouthful you eat? When you break away from anxious eating, you can help free yourself of any guilt and exhausting social comparison. Eating a balanced meal means flexibility and a diverse range of foods.
Where do we go from here?
Social media has its benefits. It’s fast, giving individuals power to call out inaccuracies, and enables global conservations and joint effort using hashtags, creating amazing campaigns which gain traction in the media and reach politicians.
We need to bring more healthcare professionals onto Instagram to try and shift behaviour away from clean eating or dieting behaviour. Instagram has already blocked harmful hashtags such as #thinspo or #proana (pro-anorexia). However, more needs to be done. #fitspo still has over 72 million posts in comparison to #bodyneutralily which only has 126,000.
I ask you all to keep your wits about you. Think carefully about how the influencers you follow are impacting your lifestyle:Do they share messaging of punishing yourselves to earn food e.g. ‘Think of the breakfast you can eat after this workout’, ‘The only bad workout is the one you didn’t do’, ‘No pain, no gain’, ‘sweat is just fat crying’?
1.Do they promote balance but avoid certain food groups or restrictive diets?
2.Do they push unhealthy levels of exercise?
3.Do they post about macros?
4.Do they post transformation photos suggesting a thin, toned body is an ideal?
5.Do they promote certain food supplements or powders with no scientific basis?
Look at those you follow and unfollow those who promote any of the above. Instead, think about following body liberation activists, anti-diet professionals, evidence based professionals and other accounts which offer a balanced approach and facilitate the process of healing your relationship with food.
This blog post was written by Sophie Johnson, a Bristol-based communications specialist, and passionate conservation and wellbeing blogger. Sophie has recently created her blog, Sopha Chats, where she shares conversations around our wellbeing, particularly in the world of social media today. You can also read her conservation posts on her sustainability blog.
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