Social media is a part of modern life. For many of us, it's our principal source of information. But is that a good thing when it comes to food, diet and health?
When I was in my 20s, I didn't see all that many pictures of myself. That's because someone else had to take the picture; either a friend or a passing stranger, if you were alone. There was — believe it or not, millennials — no such thing as a selfie. And on top of that, I'd have to wait days or weeks to see the picture.
So apart from those grainy snapshots or looking in the mirror, I had no way of scrutinising my appearance in detail. I certainly had no way of manipulating it; no Facetune; no Photoshop. There was very little opportunity to scrutinise the appearance of others, either, and compare myself to them, unless you counted models in magazines. (I did, but even then everyone knew these images were heavily altered to look perfect).
Now. apparently, there's nowhere that's inappropriate for a selfie. At the tap of a screen we can be in strangers' bathrooms, bedrooms and gyms and birthing suites. We're photographing ourselves daily; editing, perfecting, and sharing, instantly, with the world.
We're also photographing our food. It's not something I remember doing a few years ago; now along with millions of others, I do it every day.
Social media has enabled and encouraged this collective sharing and oversharing. It's hard for most of us to remember what life was like before we were all connected in this way. But what's the impact of this on our mental and physical health? Social media is changing how we think about life, health and food, and research is emerging to suggest it's not all positive.
Everyone's an expert and social media has democratised publishing. Anyone can post anything; there is very little barrier to entry. If you've got a device and a Wi-Fi connection you're good to go. This can create movements for positive social and political change. Witness the #MeToo or #blacklivesmatter movements.
It can also cause real harm.
The spread of anti-vaccination misinformation, for example, has been partly blamed for the drop in immunisation numbers and subsequent measles outbreaks and deaths.
In the world of food and nutrition, this is having an impact too.
As with any other topic, anyone can publish their own nutrition theory, exercise regimen or diet, and style themselves as an expert. It can start careers. Look at the array of wellness influencers out there and it's a 50/50 mix of qualified health experts and amateurs-with-a-story.
Dietitian Angela Berrill says this is both a blessing and a curse.
"It's wonderful there are so many qualified dietitians and nutritionists on social media promoting evidence-based nutrition," she says.
"But it's also completely unregulated. Anyone can have a voice without any formal training. There's a feeling that because everybody eats food, everybody can be an expert on it. So you might have someone who's found a particular way of eating that's worked for them, which makes for a compelling story. But that's a sample size of one. It's not robust scientific evidence."
It can be difficult for non-experts (i.e. most of us) to discern how accurate or otherwise social media information is.
It's made more difficult because pseudoscience often comes with a science-ish veneer, and the line that "they" — meaning the scientific establishment — are behind the times and don't want you to know about their revolutionary new discovery.
These narratives abound. In October, self-styled "gut and hormone nutritionist" Eleni Chechopoulos attracted criticism for posting on Instagram that shampoo is making people fat due to the "obesogens" in the plastic shampoo bottle. The influencer, who sells "gut rehab" services, also promotes other unproven theories and products such as detoxing and bone broth.
And Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe, has made a career out of making claims about ingredients that have been roundly criticised by scientists as pseudoscience. She recently launched a line of supplements.
Content like Chechopoulos' and Hari's can be damaging, experts say, because it can lead people into following unproven or downright wacky practices, including nutritionally compromised diets, and for some, anxiety and disordered eating.
A 2016 study of social content with the hashtag #fitspiration found while these images may be somewhat inspirational, they also contain elements likely to have negative effects on the viewer's body image.
And a recent University of Glasgow study found that just one out of nine leading UK bloggers making weight management claims actually provided accurate and trustworthy information.
Regulators are now starting to scrutinise social media content that makes health or wellness claims.
In October three UK celebrities — Katie Price, reality star Lauren Goodger and DJ Melissa Reeves — had complaints against them upheld by the UK Advertising Standards Authority over posts about the supposed virtues of weight-loss products from the company Boombod. The posts were described as "promoting a diet product in an irresponsible way" by the watchdog.
(Price is a repeat offender who's also been criticised for promoting something called Skinny Coffee.
The Kardashian sisters are well-known promoters of "skinny" detox teas.)
In New Zealand the Advertising Standards Authority has a code which states influencers must identify advertising clearly in their posts. But anyone who spends time on social media will have seen clear examples of this not being done. In 2019, though, there were no complaints to the ASA specifically about influencer posts.
Instagram and Facebook have recently taken their own steps to tighten up on this kind of content, announcing in September they would restrict posts about weight-loss products that contain prices or incentives to buy, and stop people known to be under 18 from seeing them. Users can also report weight-loss products and if the post contains a "miraculous" claim about a diet or weight-loss product and is linked to a commercial offer, it will be removed.
Actor and body positivity campaigner Jameela Jamil, who has been a vocal critic of celebrities promoting bogus weight-loss products, hailed the update as a victory for mental health advocates.
"This is a huge win for our ongoing fight against the diet/detox industry," she said. "Facebook and Instagram taking a stand to protect the physical and mental health of people online sends an important message out to the world."
Eating and extremes
Social media is the perfect venue for extreme content about food and health. From "Metaphysical Meagan" extolling the virtues of "perineum sunning" on Facebook to squadrons of extremely proportioned babes posting their thigh gaps (aka #tobleronetunnel) on Instagram, there's something kooky with every swipe of the finger.
It's very easy to see extreme food stuff, too, whether you're looking for it or not. On YouTube, you can start with a simple search for "vegetarian recipes" and within a few videos easily get to "raw vegan fasting".
The consequences can be bad. It's not that big a jump from cutting out a food or food group for health reasons, to what's become known as orthorexia — a damaging obsession with healthy eating. Berrill says we need to remember what's really being shown on social media.
"Someone may post one meal or snack out of their whole day or week. The rest of what they're eating is not shown. But we can get the impression that every single thing we eat needs to be perfect and super healthy. It can lead to negative feelings, where followers may feel like a failure if they are not eating a certain way, classifying foods as 'good' or 'bad', and having a negative relationship with food."
Social media might not be great for those doing the posting, either; a recent study found some women who posted "fitspiration" images on Instagram showed significant signs of disordered eating; almost a fifth were at risk for diagnosis of a clinical eating disorder.
Comparison is the thief of joy
The Guardian recently described the 2010s as "the decade of the social media celebrity". Influencers, they said, "suggest their lives are so perfect that, by showing us photos of how they eat, dress, parent, travel, decorate, exercise, put on makeup and even cure themselves of illness, they will influence us to do the same".
While it could be argued this is no different from movie stars and celebrities of old, it's not really the same. An influencer may have no other claim to fame than followers.
And while we might find some influencer content inspiring, it's a fine line before it tips into damage to mental health.
A recent UK study found that almost 40 per cent of girls who spend more than five hours a day on social media (not an uncommon amount of time for a teenager) show symptoms of depression. The study showed girls are much more likely than boys to display signs of depression linked to their social media use.
This is thought to be largely down to social comparison. It's the basic human psychological need to compare ourselves with others; social media simply super-charges this urge. There's a body of evidence now to show that "upward" social comparison in particular — comparing ourselves to those we perceive to have higher status — is damaging to self-esteem. That influencer's apparently perfect life, perfect body and perfect diet, it seems, can make us feel terrible about ourselves.
What's the antidote to this?
Berrill says there are some fantastic people on social media promoting body positivity, and they're worth seeking out. Unfollowing anyone whose posts are making us feel bad is a good strategy, too.
It's also worth remembering that an influencer is basically there to sell stuff. They're salespeople, whether they disclose that they're selling or not. For some, it's their full-time job to curate and sell themselves and their lives online. It's highly unlikely what you see on social media is reality. And it's highly unlikely it's as wonderful as it looks on screen.
This was brought home to me recently in an encounter with an overseas influencer during a media trip.
While the rest of the party enjoyed the moment — a swim in a pristine blue lake — this young woman spent her time (after clearing us all out of the shot so it appeared she was alone) repeatedly diving into the water while being videoed by our patient guide. Four or five dives later she emerged, exhausted — but with the perfect piece of content to feed the needy beast that is Instagram.
Instagram is now planning to roll out its move of hiding the "likes" on Instagram, as it did in New Zealand last year. It's done this, it says, to make Instagram users focus more on posting for the fun of it, and not for the validation of likes. How this affects influencer culture — and us — long term, remains to be seen.
In the meantime there's value in spending time away from our screens.
"Give yourself a social media holiday," says Berrill. "If you're finding it detrimental to your mental or physical health, take a break — get off completely or do a lot of unfollowing. Social media shouldn't be making us feel guilty or shameful. The power really is in our hands."