This post discusses disordered eating. Please only continue to read if you feel it is healthy for you to do so.
When I was 17, I started going to a gym regularly with my Mom. I was a US size 8 for most of high school, and even though I wasn’t model-thin, I was comfortable with my body. At least, up until that point.
When I started working out, weight came off easily. Then, I quit my fast food job, and it came off even more easily. Before long, I was “skinny” and was getting compliments for being so. My dance class at high school introduced a nutrition unit, and we were required to keep a log of all the calories we consumed during spring break. Suddenly, my obsessive, competitive personality meant I was ready to race to the bottom and would stop at nothing to be the leanest girl in the class.
My fixation messed me up for years, but my experience is far from unique. You don’t have to be a dancer or an athlete to be susceptible to extreme messages about how much you’re “supposed” to eat or weigh. Frankly, you just need a pulse.
An internet connection doesn’t hurt, either. And if YouTube had been as popular when I was in high school as it is now, I wouldn’t have made it out alive.
When I became obsessed with weight loss, I tapped all the resources available to me, which were limited to the fitness section in my copies of Seventeen and snippets of advice from Oprah and Dr. Oz. I knew about the risks of eating disorders — I came of age in the era of Real Women Have Curves and the very first Dove Campaign For Real Beauty. But the way eating disorders were portrayed in the media — models collapsing on runways, or scandalous photos of skeletal celebrity women on the cover of tabloids — convinced me I didn’t really have a problem. I subtly shed 13 pounds over the course of a year, did 100 crunches a night, and became a hyper-vigilant calorie counter. It seemed pretty normal. And while cautionary tales of thinness existed, for each one I heard, I was served with three or four primetime news specials about the perils of packaged food and the boogieman of childhood obesity.
Sure, there were harmful thinspo message boards and IRC channels, where you could learn techniques on how to stave off hunger, trim easily calories, purge without people noticing, and generally have your bad habits encouraged by other people. I was aware of these boards, and knew at least one person who participated regularly, but I could never bring myself to do more than read through threads once or twice. Maybe it was the very “underground” nature of it, but creating an account and reading regularly felt more shameful, and in a way, it felt more real. If I wasn’t partaking in these super-secret discussions, then that meant I didn’t really have a problem.
And today, when every other female YouTuber seems to have one or more “What I Eat In A Day” videos on her channel, I have to wonder if anyone even realizes how unhealthy it is to try to match someone else’s consumption, calorie-for-calorie and macro-for-macro, just because we think they’re pretty.
“What I eat in a day” videos show exactly how much we’re obsessed with what other people eat.
Google searches for “What I Eat in a Day” videos have been steadily rising over time, more than doubling over the last 15 years. It’s largely driven by internet users in the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Canada.
These videos might seem harmless. They might even seem silly. But they are not only an indication of our society’s incredibly problematic desire to imitate celebrities and our disproportionate value of thinness — they’re also dangerous.
It seems that half the time, these videos portray a problematically low amount of food to eat — like this vlogger, who says it’s “a good day” if she even has a croissant with her morning coffee, and then allegedly proceeds to not eat anything until lunchtime. This deprivative way of eating is generally presented as normalized or even glamorized. Of course, this isn’t unique to YouTube — in 2011, The Hollywood Reporter covered Adriana Lima’s arduous pre-fashion show diet, which consists of no solid food for nine days prior to showtime, with two workouts per day. In the immediate 12 hours leading up to the show, no food or even water whatsoever. And disturbingly, THR’s coverage doesn’t share a single critical or cautionary word about Lima’s diet.
Other times, “what I eat in a day” videos seem to show almost the complete opposite — incredibly petite women consuming such massive amounts of food that it requires intense suspension of disbelief. Whether it’s because these vloggers have trash-incinerator metabolisms, or they’re simply not telling the truth, it’s highly unlikely that your average woman is going to lose weight while consuming three boxes of cherries, several bunches of bananas, and an entire bag of potatoes, among other things, in one day.
It might seem irritating, or even problematic, to be equally opposed to two very different types of videos. But the tie that binds the two is the normalization of very extreme ways to eat, and the appeal to our desires to be slim without any consideration as to whether or not someone else’s diet may suit our bodies or lifestyles.
And sometimes, bad ideas can come from a place of good intentions. We might follow the weight-loss journey of someone we’ve never met, eagerly awaiting their latest progress pics or announcement of whether they’re up or down. Maybe they’ll never be a size two, but we swear, we’re just happy to see their journey. And if we happen to pick up a few recipes for zero-net carb egg white cups along the way, all the better, right?
Or maybe it manifests in our good-natured, rising obsession with meal prep, in our following of YouTubers and Instagrammers specializing in week-long meal plan, many with calorie counts under the daily recommended 2,000 per day. And while some women may actually thrive on 1,700 calories per day, knowing what your body needs is something that generally requires a lot more consultation with professionals, like physicians and dieticians. Simply imitating someone else probably isn’t going to get you the results you want (or need).
It may feel like community, and it may even feel like girl-power encouragement. But just because it comes from the friendly, familiar face of an influencer you admire doesn’t mean it’s not part of the weight loss industry.
The diet industry is changing (and not dying).
The diet industry may try to convince us it’s changing — Weight Watchers has rebranded to focus on “wellness,” and once-mighty empires like Jenny Craig and Curves have seen major downturns. But just because the weight loss industry doesn’t look the way it did in the 90s doesn’t mean the diet industry isn’t as strong as it’s ever been. As of year-end 2018, the weight loss industry in the U.S. is still recording growth — 4.1%, to be exact. With a current valuation of $72.8 billion, the industry is still set to grow in future years, even though growth will slow.
Of course, certain facets of the industry are trending downward — diet soda revenue was down 1.6% in the U.S. last year, and the artificial sweetener industry is now only worth an estimated $2.25 billion. But with those falls come the rise of new “healthy eating” trends. Zion Research found that the global gluten-free food industry is valued at $4.72 billion as of 2017 and is expected to reach $7.6 billion by 2024. And the “meal replacement” industry (smoothies, protein bars, and other macro-packed nutrition bombs) is predicted to reach a worldwide value of $20.6 billion in the next two years.
Additionally, 65% of North American marketers plan to increase the amount that they spend on influencer marketing in the next year. When even dieticians and nutritionists on Instagram accept sponsorship money from food brands, it sometimes feels like a matter of time before we see a brand-sponsored food pyramid being taught in health classes (which sounds like a Parks and Recreation plot).
The diet industry is changing and adapting, and millennial and Gen-Z women must realize that it is now us, not our mothers, that the industry is after. Marketers know what trends to pay attention to, and what we consume on social media is one of the most valuable sets of data. Every view we give to a low-carb-sheet-pan-meal-prep video is just more info in the hands of those with something to sell.
We may think we’re savvy consumers because we don’t buy flat tummy detox teas or “appetite-suppressant” lollipops, but how many of us are shelling out the extra dollar for a no-added-sugar version of the same strawberry jam (please tell me how those economics work, again?) or switching to almond milk because we heard it will cure our bloat and acne and every single ailment?
We are so fucking afraid of being fat that we covet thinness, regardless of the risks.
Many of the studies out there that focus on mortality risk in correlation with BMI focus mainly on higher BMIs. However, one long-term study done out of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital focused on people of varying BMIs over a period of five years and found that people in the “underweight” classification have the highest mortality risks. And while the study’s author acknowledges that BMI might not be the most relevant or current indicator of health, it’s not the first or only piece of research out there that has determined that there is, indeed, a limit to how small we should be. When even a fitness site preaches the risk of having too little body fat, it’s hard to deny that the pursuit of being petite has real risks — ones that we don’t hear about as much as the risks of weight gain.
“What I eat in a day” videos might be relatively new, but extreme and restrictive diets on women (in the name of imitation) have always been pushed. This ancient uncovered text reveals the “Ford model diet” from the 1960’s, featuring an utterly joyless combination of broccoli (no butter), vegetable juice, black coffee and grapefruit (with a side of, I presume, cigarettes). The good news is, this isn’t new. The bad news is, this isn’t ending anytime soon.
I’ll save any of us the aggravation of determining what a “healthy” diet is, because a healthy diet is intensely personal. Research posted in Cell showed that there are so many varying reactions among individuals to the same meal that the idea of one “universally healthy” diet may have, in the study’s words, “limited utility.” In response to the data, Professor Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and leader of The Personalized Nutrition Project, said, “Maybe we’re really conceptually wrong in our thinking about the obesity and diabetes academic… Maybe people are actually compliant, but in many cases we were giving them wrong advice.”
I’m not saying we can’t get food inspiration from others. The rise of food blogs and the increasing influence of home chefs-turned-cookbook-authors have helped make things like home cooking and meal prep more accessible and interesting (Canadian book retailer Chapters Indigo’s list of bestselling cookbooks has just as many works from self-taught bloggers-turned-authors as it does from pros like Jamie Oliver and the late Anthony Bourdain). Food is personal, and yet it should be shared. When we invite others into our lives through food, we are telling them about where we come from, what we like and what excites us. But we’re not telling them to emulate us.
Bree Rody-Mantha is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
Image via Unsplash