For some people, influencers have become their health experts of choice. This new breed of "health" influencers are perpetuating a toxic diet culture – and its convincing our most vulnerable.
As social media influencers transcend from aspirational to everyday, so too has the advice they give us. Influencers project what we think is unfiltered access to their lives and in return we give them control over our self-worth.
In late July, former Bachelorette Elly Miles gave her some 206,000 Instagram followers an insight into her Carnivore Diet. An Instagram Story decreed the level of toxicity of vegetables and other such dietary staples. Miles' post labelled avocados, berries, sweet fruit and cucumbers (sans skins and seeds) as less toxic than leafy greens, nuts and grains.
The backlash was rightfully swift and Miles quickly deleted her post. In a statement to WHO, Miles said "It sucks it's been taken this way and I'm sad I've upset people by it as well." She added that it was "absolutely devastating. My intention was to give people an example of the type of plants I'm able to implement into my diet during the challenge".
While I don't doubt the earnestness of Miles' apology, her step into dietary advice is a reminder of how unqualified individuals are exacerbating a dangerous fetishisation we have with diet culture.
Research reflected by Australia's only national charity for eating disorders, the Butterfly Foundation, shows that young people who diet moderately are six times more likely to develop an eating disorder. In fact, those who are severe dieters have an 18-fold risk.
The Butterfly Foundation calls diet culture a set of beliefs that promote weight loss and equate it with a person's health, success and self-worth.
Sophie Smith, 23, from Sydney, was one of these dieters. Now in recovery, Smith says that the social media influencers she followed contributed to her eating disorder behaviours, low self-esteem and poor body image.
"Because my eating disorder was largely orthorexia (an obsession with "healthy" eating), I followed a lot of health and fitness accounts.
"Being constantly exposed to this kind of content really just fuelled my eating disorder and reinforced my skewed beliefs around food, weight and health, making me think that my diet had to be 'perfect; in order to be okay and I had to do certain types and amounts of exercise to be healthy."
Chris Fowler, clinician and helpline team leader at The Butterfly Foundation, says influencers who publish images of unrealistic bodies, quick-fix weight loss solutions and diet tips on social media are one of the largest contributors to the manifestation of eating disorders for young people like Sophie.
Diet culture is an ever-present trigger for disordered eating, weight-loss dieting and body dissatisfaction, which are all risk factors for the development of an eating disorder.
While Instagram is the home of aspirational posts, younger Aussies continue to flock to the new kid on the block – TikTok - in search of more natural content. In October, Roy Morgan reported that over 70 per cent of all TikTok users were Generation Alpha and Generation Z (or born after 1991).
While the content is undoubtedly more unfiltered, the finger to the air health fact checking is running rampant TikTok. The #WhatIEatInADay hashtag boasts over 7.6 billion views. The content stream is a thread of posts from tweens and teens normalising comparative diets.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said that the platform is committed to "safeguarding our community from harmful content and behaviour while supporting an inclusive – and body-positive – environment".
"Some of the steps we take include banning ads for fasting apps and weight loss supplements, increasing restrictions on ads that promote harmful or negative body image, and adding permanent public service announcements (PSAs) on hashtags like #whatIeatinaday to increase awareness and provide support for our community."
Those leading the anti-diet charge can take solace that TikTok's #bodypositivity thread has been viewed some 13 billion times. The popularity of #bodypositivity is evidence of TikTok's ability to champion community-led diversity.
Saying platforms like TikTok and Instagram are solely responsible for the prevalence of diet culture and eating disorders in Australia is reductive of our societal obsession is ascertaining peak wellness. It is kind of like blaming a landlord for having bad tenants.
The Nude Nutritionist Lyndi Cohen is a champion of the guerrilla anti-diet movement. Cohen, who herself has over 120,000 Instagram followers, contends that social media platforms have "created a culture of shame around our bodies and intensified our feelings of not being good enough".
"Curated images of perfect bodies used to be reserved for the front cover of magazines but now any person can easily edit, manipulate and filter their images to remove imperfections before sharing them online," Cohen says.
"Young people are absorbing hours of curated social media content each day in what I think is a twisted social experiment. Gen Z spends hours each day on social media and we know from the evidence that more young people are struggling with their mental health more than any generation to come before them."
In 2019, it was reported that around 30 per cent of young people were extremely or very concerned about their body image. These numbers have no doubt risen again in line with the added stresses of the pandemic and the meteoric rise of another social media platform in TikTok.
In her recovery, Sophie Smith recommends that young people cast a critical eye over their own social media diet before taking advice from any influencer.
"Do a deliberate audit of all your social media accounts," says Smith. "Consider how this content makes you feel about yourself. Does it push you to do things you don't enjoy? Does it make you feel bad or inferior? Anxious when you don't exercise or eat a certain food?"
"It can be hard," says Smith. "Especially if you follow certain accounts because all your friends or family do, but you really have to put yourself and your mental health first. Unfollow any accounts that are profiting off your insecurities."
Will Cook is a writer and ambassador for The Butterfly Foundation.