Is the “What I Eat in a Day” trend helpful or harmful?

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An investigation into the “What I Eat in a Day” videos that permeate the social media feeds of young women.

I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom in late-October, chatting on FaceTime with a friend from camp, when I first heard someone speak of the dangerous side of the “What I Eat in a Day” trend.

“Those videos have affected my little sister to the point where she won’t even drink coffee because it has too many calories,” said Alyssa, piquing my curiosity.

As a girl in my early twenties, like Alyssa, who spends time on social media, I knew the kind of videos that her teenage sister, Christa, was watching very well. So well, in fact, that the usual “What I Eat in a Day” thumbnail of a slender girl in a bikini next to a “healthy” meal instantly popped into my head. Since high school, I’ve absentmindedly consumed a countless number of these videos in search of health inspiration. Upon reflection, they’ve helped me find snack ideas, but oftentimes, seeing what other girls eat on my screen has made me subconsciously second guess and feel guilty about what’s been on my plate.

An example of a “What I Eat in a Day” thumbnail from model, Sanne Vloet’s YouTube.

“Christa is so skinny and so toned,” Alyssa said, “but almost every single time I talk to her, she’s like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting fat.’ It drives me crazy. Those videos are just really damaging.”

My friend further explained that her sister’s TikTok feed is filled with content advising her to avoid eating normal foods, like bread. As a result, Christa has cut necessary nutriments out of her daily food intake.

Startled from our phone conversation, I began to understand why almost every single “What I Eat in a Day” video starts with a lengthy “trigger” disclaimer, where the influencer repeatedly warns viewers to click off if they find themselves comparing their diets and/or bodies. Some girls, like Christa, aren’t taking the tips they see with a grain of salt, but instead, are comparing and changing their own diets to acquire “perfect” bodies.

I was shocked to hear that Christa, an in-shape, beautiful girl who resembles the influencers that post these vlogs, is being so negatively affected by them. Since more and more girls, myself included, are consuming diet-related content online, there needs to be research done on how it’s impacting our mental health and body image. So, I set out to discover if “What I Eat in a Day” videos are helpful or harmful, as well as to unveil why we continue to click on them. Through the process of conducting my own research and interviewing women knowledgeable on the topic, I found out that this trend is not as simple as it seems on the surface.

Brief History of Female Body Image Ideals

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Vogue’s 1957 crash “grape” diet — girls have been encouraged to take drastic measures to lose weight for decades.

Looking back on how the media’s fantasied female body shape has evolved over the years helps to illustrate whygauntness is labeled as the norm in “What I Eat in a Day” videos, as well as why girls often feel pressure to mimic the eating habits of slender influencers.

Normal women were not always presumed to look like the ones praised by society for their beauty. In fact, scholar David Prabu’s research finds that “idealized portrayals of women can be traced to the Renaissance artists and Venus sculptures by the Greeks.” Back then, those women “represented ethereal beauty, depicting godly standards,” which were not expected to be emulated by everyday women.

Nowadays, however, girls learn from magazines and social media that they should and can achieve the “thinness and attractiveness” of models through “discipline, diet, exercise, and the consumption of fashion and beauty products.”

To understand why leanness continues to equal sex appeal for contemporary girls, I spoke with Dr. Page Heisser, LMFT, a professor from Texas Tech University. From a feminist perspective, she believes that the sizes of people presented in the media has always been intertwined with our notions of power.

“As women were gaining more power and equality with men, the images of men became bigger, stronger, and often more aggressive. This is based on a patriarchy’s fear of women gaining power, so the culture had to present them as physically becoming smaller, taking up less space,” explains Dr. Heisser.

In other words, as women have accumulated more rights, depictions of larger women became “more threatening to masculinity.” Although many men and women have been attracted to bigger women, our society’s sexualization and normalization of smaller women has brought forth the common belief that “men prefer thin women.” Similarly, Amanda Dodson, an eating disorder specialist, informed me, “Historically, men in power have always decided which women are considered beautiful.”

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It’s only been 100 years since women got the right to vote!

Interestingly, unrealistic expectations for women in the United States began in the 1920s, soon after the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Sadly, according to Kerry Harnett’s “Appearing Modern,” right when the “Modern Woman broke free of the controls of domesticity and corsets, the vicious cycle of diet, temptation, and numbers on a scale established a different set of restrictions and controls over women’s bodies.”

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An illustration of the flawless, flapper female figure of the twenties.

Furthermore, Jaita Talukdar’s “Diet and weight control” says that the decade of the twenties saw the rise of fast fashion, which “glamourized an ultrathin body ideal by shrinking the size of women’s clothes,” as well as the invention of the private bathroom scale and the beginning of the Miss America Pageant, both of which coerced women to be sylphlike. In agreement with Dr. Heisser’s point, the 1920s media began presenting emaciated women primarily because men were fearful of the newfound freedoms of the opposite sex.

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A woman checking her weight on one of the first private bathroom scales.

The angular standard intensified in the 1950s, when girls turned to magazines, rather than YouTube videos, for what they should eat each day for an appealing look. For example, in the January 1950 issue, Vogue described an exquisite female body as one with an “unexaggerated bosom, a concave middle, a close hipline, a seemingly long leg.” To achieve the “new figure,” Vogue’s “Diet X” winter booklet advised female readers to consume a total of 163 calories per day, eating only raspberries, a small watermelon slice, and one medium baked peach.

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Fashion: 1950 Body Line. Vogue.
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Beauty: Winter version of Vogue’s Diet X.

In the 1960s, “as women were gaining power through the Women’s Movement, promotion of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the emergence of feminism, they were becoming smaller in the media,” says Dr. Heisser.

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Twiggy, the super skinny fashion model of the 1960s.

For example, a 1985 editorial research report asserts that Twiggy, a 97-pound, five-foot-seven British teenager became the role model for young women, who strove to “achieve this new starved appearance, and sometimes so did their mothers and older sisters.”

As women continue to earn a more prominent place in society, the mainstream media’s persistent fixation on the delicate body type causes most American women worries over their looks and pressures to weigh less. Acknowledging the past of the thin ideal explains why today’s girls are drawn to “What I Eat in a Day” videos, which recommend “healthy” ways to attain society’s longstanding idea of a good-looking female frame.

Y2K PANIC!!

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Paris Hilton, early 2000s.

The popularity of “What I Eat in a Day” videos is largely due to Gen Z’s (1997–2020) revival of the early 2000s fashion aesthetic. In 2020, the more a girl resembles the “cool girls” of the early 2000s — Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Nicole Richie, Mary-Kate Olsen — the more appeal she has on social media.

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Emma Chamberlain, 2019.

So much so, that this age group relentlessly supports expensive, trendy brands with retro vibes, such as UNIF, Princess Polly, and Urban Outfitters because their clothing and accessories embody the early 2000s aesthetic: bright colors, plaid “school girl” skirts, bucket hats, crop-tops, hair clips, choker necklaces, chunky shoes, animal print, and pretty much anything else that was considered fashionable in Friends or Sex and the City.

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It’s often hard to tell the difference between the stars of 2000 and the influencers of 2020.

A recent L’OFFICIEL article says Gen Z’s reincarnation of butterfly clips, tiny sunglasses, and low-rise jeans expresses “a simultaneous nostalgia for the past and an escapist future.”

Truly thinking back on the women being glamourized reveals that the early 2000s was not a simpler time after all, as they had more in common than a love for Juicy Couture. All of those women shared one striking commonality: they were skinny, frightfully skinny.

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By renewing what was popular in the early 2000s, are we also reintroducing a malnourished body type?

In 2001, “web sites promoting eating disorders as a lifestyle, not a disorder, became popular” because girls wanted to look like the “pencil-thin Hollywood actresses” they saw in magazines and on TV — Prah for CQ Researcher.

In like manner, another early 2000s study found, “The images of women presented in the media today are thinner than past media images of women, thinner than the actual female population, and often thinner than the criteria for anorexia.” — Grabe, Ward, & Hyde for Psychological Bulletin.

Furthermore, a recent bitchmedia article says, “magazines have long encouraged their largely female readership to hate their bodies and to purchase products that whittled their bodies down. Unlike the print magazines of yore, social media allows pro-ana content to do constant damage.”

Today’s young girls idolize women they see at the touch of a button, like Emma Chamberlain, the social media mirror image of Paris Hilton. The 19-year-old’s bleached blonde hair, designer clothes, and extreme skinniness has attracted “millions of social media followers, astronomical numbers of YouTube views, and a fashion partnership with Louis Vuitton” (Cosmopolitan). While millions of girls look up to Chamberlain because of her spontaneous sense of humor, they also admire her because scrolling through her Instagram feed feels like flipping through a tabloid from the year 2000.

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Paris Hilton x Juicy Couture, early 2000s
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Emma Chamberlain x Juicy Couture, 2020

Notably, the social media star refuses to partake in the “What I Eat in a Day” trend due to her own body image struggles. Earlier this year, she told Cosmopolitan, “I just think that growing up on social media gave me eating issues as a kid. I literally have struggled with that my whole life. Almost every person I’ve met has had some form of an eating disorder. I mean, I’ve had…I don’t want to trigger anyone, but so many.” Although Chamberlain doesn’t post about her diet, her online elevation of maximal lankiness and wealth is perhaps just as damaging to her young female followers. Overall, the comeback of the early 2000s aesthetic in the digital age compounds the triggers put forth by “What I Eat in a Day” videos, as the underfed aesthetic is no longer confined inside of fashion magazines but is alive and thriving on social media.

Every “body” is different, right?

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Even Victoria’s Secret Angel, Romee Strijd, has jumped on the “What I Eat in a Day” bandwagon.

While there is a bountiful amount of existing research on female body image, not many studies are out there yet on how today’s online diet culture is influencing women’s body image. Since girls, like my friend’s teenage sister, Christa, trust these videos for nutrition advice, I became determined to figure out if this trend actually helps us eat healthier, or if it harms us by promoting goals that are often unattainable.

The little information that does exist puts forth a number of reasons why these videos are not healthy for girls to absorb. First of all, a recent New York Post article discovered that a vast majority of “What I Eat in a Day” content features “disturbing calorie deficits and disordered eating habits.” Thus, the bitchmedia article is correct in saying that: by furthering an unrealistic body image and restricted eating habits, these videos can, in fact, inflict “real damage” on female viewers.

Oftentimes, female influencers are aware of the potential damage that can stem from these videos and alert their viewers to stop watching if they feel “triggered.”

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Thumann, “What I eat in a day as a model,” Youtube (2020).

In Ellie Thumann’s video, the 19-year-old pleads, “Please do not think in any way shape or form that what I’m eating is exactly what you need to be eating in a day. Every single person is different. I don’t want you to watch this and think that exactly what I’m eating, you need to eat as well.”

She also mentions that she “doesn’t eat healthy 100 percent of the time,” to which Dr. Heisser argues, “She is still a thin woman. Her body may have a faster metabolism that doesn’t require her to work out as much or that allows her to eat more foods that are unhealthy.” Therefore, when women with different metabolisms and body types copy her eating patterns, they might be disappointed when their results do not reflect Thumann’s long, lean body.

Comparatively, Haley Raines begins her “What I ate in a week” vlog with a nearly six-minute disclaimer acknowledging how “toxic” and “destructive” watching these videos has been for her personally, since she has suffered from an eating disorder. Contradictorily, she then proceeds to partake in the trend by showing that she eats half a grapefruit for breakfast each morning.

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Haley’s “trigger” warning takes up 1/3 of the video.

Why do female influencers continue to post what they eat if they have experienced harmful side effects from these videos?

The Queen’s University Journal claims that the reasoning they usually provide for posting these videos, despite understanding their possible virulency, is to give their followers “healthy meal tips.” The study goes on to declare that this fitness advice is mostly likely coming from “an 18-year-old girl who probably doesn’t have a degree in nutrition.”

In actuality, one of the main reasons influencers continue to post “What I Eat in a Days” is because they get views. It’s not surprising that girls watch them, seeing as the media’s ongoing praise of slenderness has resulted in the number on the scale to often act as a solidifier of our worthiness.

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While “What I Eat in a Day” content can lead anyone to feel “significant distress and self-consciousness regarding food,” scholars say that it is particularly risky for women who have, or have had, eating disorder or body image issues (Fenwick). Body image is defined as “how people think and feel about their bodies,” and it will probably bounce back and forth from healthy to unhealthy several times throughout a person’s life (Reynaga-Abiko).

When girls do not feel like they live up to the Western world’s idealized female body image, “light-skinned, able-bodied, young, and extremely thin,” they are likely to have a poor body image, which is “the number one predictor” for developing an eating disorder (Reynaga-Abiko).

Brittani Lancaster, a recent University of Oregon graduate, who is now a body image activist on TikTok, has experienced the harsh side effects of not feeling good about her body. Lancaster is currently recovering from two eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Anorexia, as I learned from eating disorder expert, Amanda Dodson, is characterized by a pattern of restricting food intake, exercising excessively, and an intense preoccupation with weight.

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@brittanilancaster

Meanwhile, Dodson explains that binge eating disorder does not apply to someone who has had a big meal and is full, but when they eat “a pizza, a whole bag of chips, a box of cookies, and are really uncomfortably full.” Alike anorexia, there is also a preoccupation with weight in regard to binge eating.

“There can be some restricting that goes on too that feeds the binges because people get really hungry, trying to “be good” and then they end up bingeing because nobody can keep that up,” describes Dodson.

She also defines the central emotional themes in any eating disorder to be shame, control, and perfectionism. That being said, when a woman struggling sees a glamorized spin of what another woman is eating on TikTok, she is more likely to do whatever damage on her body that it takes to achieve what social media deems as perfect.

When Lancaster was struggling from two eating disorders, she recalls that “What I Eat in a Days” would cause her to obsess more about what she ate. She explains that watching these videos can be difficult for those in recovery because it’s easy for them to forget how bad habits, like restriction, once were for their bodies. “It can be triggering,” says Lancaster, “and they’ll be like, ‘Oh wait, was it actually that bad? Should I do that again?’”

Agreeably, Holly Finlay, Clinical Director and Co-Founder of the Albuquerque Eating Disorders Treatment Care Center, explains, “The trigger is that people with eating disorders tend to compare themselves with other people. So, when they see ‘This is what I eat in a day,’ then they may either get a superior high feeling like, ‘Well, look at this. This girl eats a lot and I feel good about myself because my self-esteem is so low that what I measure my value and worth on is my body.’”

Therefore, the “What I Eat in a Day” craze on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube can possibly cause harm to female viewers by normalizing unhealthy habits and adding unnecessary pressure to the relationship between women and food.

On the bright side, Lancaster is working to flip this trend on its head by posting “What I Eat in a Days” on TikTok with the sole purpose of helping people.

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Click here to check out Brittani’s TikTok.

“It was very rare for people to see a “What I Eat in a Day” that had a sufficient amount of food for a human being, and that wasn’t this extreme restriction. There’s nothing I don’t eat, so in my TikToks, I try to be honest about my cravings and my hunger signals,” explains Lancaster.

“My goal with my “What I Eat in a Days” is to show people that eating doesn’t have to be this complex thing that you are spending your entire day thinking about and planning out every single me. It can be easy,” says Lancaster.

Through my conversations with these women, I learned that while there is a lot of negativity that can come from watching “What I Eat in a Days,” thankfully, there are body image activists, like Lancaster, working to make the trend more inclusive.

Building a resistance to online diet culture, a personal reflection

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@beadsforeds

Fortunately, through the process of learning more about today’s diet culture, I picked up tips for reframing distressing body thoughts and for avoiding content makes me think negatively about my body.

Every woman I talked to said some form of: “Try comparing yourself to yourself instead.”

Dodson, for example, has her patients make a vision board, but not the typical aspirational style board of what they want their body to look like in the future. Instead, she tells them to find pictures of people who look like them. Over time, Dodson has found that when a girl makes the conscious decision of casting her sights on someone who she thinks is beautiful and also looks like she does, she grows to love how she looks.

Another piece of advice that stands out is to curate a positive social media feed.

For instance, Dr. Heisser told me, “Focus more on real bodies. There are even hashtags such as #realbodies, #normalizenormalbodies, and #normalbodies that focus on influencers and images that represent more realistic, or at least a wide range, of female bodies.”

On the same note, Emma Chamberlain recently talked on her podcast about how she deals with the “Internet’s toxic obsession with body image.” She said, “The first step is to mute and unfollow people that make this worse for you. If you follow somebody that posts weight loss content and that triggers you, unfollow them. It’s weird because I think people allow themselves to see things that hurt them. Take initiative so that you don’t let yourself see that stuff.”

“It’s really important to follow people who inspire you or make you feel better about yourself,” says Lancaster.

Through this, I’ve learned how valuable it is for my mental health to remove things from my feed that make me question my worth. Ultimately, I can’t control what others post and what body type the media says is perfect, but I can be more aware of where I’m focusing my attention. For example, watching music videos by the K-Pop boy band, BTS makes me feel uplifted and confident, so I’m going to make more of an effort to include positive energy like that in my daily media diet.

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@beadsforeds on Instagram

Finally, I was taught that there is so much more to life than food and what we watch online.

Holly Finlay reminded me that much of what we see on the Internet isn’t real life when she said: “There are people who will work for hours and hours to get the perfect body shot. They always put their best face forward on social media. Why would anyone admit to bingeing on a bag of marshmallows and throwing it up?”

In conclusion, a recent Vogue article found that “the negative impact of ‘worry and stress over healthy eating’ may have a worse effect on American health than what we actually eat.” So, if I panic about overeating Cheez-Its, that could take more of a toll on my wellbeing than actually eating them. Even though diet culture sometimes feels inescapable, I have the power to not click on “What I Eat in a Day” videos that could make me feel worse about myself. If I do watch one, I can make the decision to not let it rule how I eat and view my body. From now on, rather than punishing my body to fit what is flattering according to society, I will eat foods and watch videos that make me happy.

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University of Oregon Journalism Master’s Student

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