An article from Study Finds explored troubling results from a recent study by researchers at the
University of Vermont that looked at diet- and body image-related content available on TikTok.
The study found that TikTok, a platform that has many teenage users, contains a large volume of posts
that promote dieting or weight loss. Results from the study also showed that there is a lack of expert
voices sharing nutrition information on TikTok: Only 1.4% of videos in the study came from registered
Additionally, the researchers found that most of the videos in the study included weight-normative
messages, meaning that they promoted weight management and maintaining a “normal” weight as the
keys to optimal health. Relatively few posts (less than 3%) promoted weight-inclusive viewpoints —
which celebrate and encourage the pursuit of health and well-being at any size.
Based on the results, the study’s researchers came to several key conclusions: Firstly, diet culture seems
to be extremely prevalent on TikTok. And secondly, this culture may be contributing to a harmful
environment for young people.
Looking at the reach of these potentially damaging videos, the results seem especially concerning. The
researchers based their analysis on the 100 most popular videos from each of the study’s 10 chosen
hashtags relating to nutrition, food, and weight. Each of the selected hashtags had more than 1 billion
views at the beginning of the study. And according to a University of Vermont release, the selected
hashtags have grown significantly in popularity since the study began.
If teens are looking to social media for healthy and empowering ways to relate to food, they’re not likely
to find that content on TikTok, according to the results from this study. So where should they turn? And
how can we amplify expert voices in the nutrition field so that they can reach potentially vulnerable
audiences of young people?
What Do Healthy Nutrition Values Look Like?
Arguably, one of the more troubling things about diet culture — and diet-themed content — is the fact
that it does not uplift or celebrate human differences, which are often so central to promoting mental
and physical well-being.
“Just like people are different heights, we all have different weights,” shared study researcher Lizzy Pope
in the university’s release. “Weight-inclusive nutrition is really the only just way to look at humanity.”
According to the University of Vermont study, many nutrition-related videos on TikTok position food as
a key means of achieving good health. But a broader view of health and nutrition suggests that there are
many more ways you can achieve greater health, happiness, and well-being. And there are a wide
variety of healthy ways you can engage with food.
Food can play many valuable roles, including fueling our activities, helping us connect with culture,
allowing us to enjoy time spent with others, and empowering us to try new things and have new
experiences. And when it comes to body size and nutritional best practices, each person is unique and
may have different goals and needs for achieving optimal well-being.
How Can Education Empower Teens?
To help teens access accurate nutrition information and learn to respect their unique health and
nutritional needs, it may be helpful to enhance education on this important topic. Education can also
help teens become more critical consumers of social media content.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. students get fewer than eight
hours of required nutrition education each year. However, the same CDC article notes that schools can
still find creative ways to weave nutrition education into existing curriculum, including by:
• Serving locally produced food as part of school meal programs
• Offering hands-on learning activities like gardening and cooking
• Teaching about different cultural food traditions
However, educators should be careful not to unwittingly uphold the same diet culture values
adolescents are often bombarded with on social media. Nutrition education should avoid promoting
restrictive eating behaviors and should instead encourage teens to cultivate healthy relationships with
all kinds of food.