05 Apr 2023 Article

As a dietitian, I am concerned about the impact of social media on the mental and physical health of people, especially the young and other vulnerable groups. This article is about the link between social media and eating disorders.

Fake specialists

One of the dangers of modern media is the emergence of a huge number of “specialists” in the field of nutrition.

Even in the “real” world it is already difficult to find out who is actually qualified to give professional nutritional advice. Not everyone knows the difference between titles such as dietitian, nutritionist, weight consultant, nutrition therapist, and nutrition coach.

And in the virtual world, literally anyone can give advice. For example, here is a description of the daily diet of a young woman who has no education in nutrition, but who has 775,000 followers on Instagram (I decided not to name names in this article):

“I start my day with a liter of water with squeezed lemon. I drink this 30 minutes after waking up. Then I eat a tablespoon of organic black molasses (molasses is a by-product of sugar processing, a thick syrup). Then I make a 1.5 liter green smoothie and drink it all morning. For lunch I usually eat a mono fruit, 4-5 mangoes for example, or a large salad of fresh vegetables. For dinner I have a raw dish again or sometimes a warm vegan dish with lots of vegetables.

On her website, the same person shares “useful tips” with her followers. For example, according to her, protein can be obtained from mulberries or spinach. That is of course nonsense: 100 g of mulberries contain only 1 g of protein and 100 g of spinach contain only 3 g of protein. So, you have to eat at least 5 kg of mulberries or 1.5-2 kg of spinach per day to get the right amount of protein!

However, the comments of her followers show that thousands of people follow this lady’s “helpful advice”.

Low self-esteem

Social media distorts reality. Previously, we only saw extremely slim models with ideal skin in beautiful expensive clothes on TV and in magazines. Now we see them all the time on our mobile phone. There are no boundaries in the virtual world. There are filters and apps that can “improve” your appearance.

Not so long ago, American scientists conducted a study on the impact of social media on self-esteem. The conclusion? Survey participants who spent a lot of time on social media were two and a half times more likely to have low self-esteem than their peers who spent less time on social media. They were particularly concerned about their bodies and nutrition.

Why am I bothered about this? In addition to developing depression (or depression-like symptoms), low self-esteem can lead to an eating disorder. Eating disorders, in turn, can lead to serious physical, psychological and social problems. It is estimated that 6% to 10% of people with an eating disorder die from malnutrition or suicide. This is the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. In my opinion, the emergence of orthorexia, a relatively new eating disorder, is due to social media. Read more below.

Sosical media and orthorexia

Orthorexia is an eating disorder characterized by a manic desire to only eat “healthy” or “pure” foods.

Orthorexia was first described in 1997 but has only recently become a truly widespread phenomenon. Personally, I mostly blame social media and the lack of internet censorship for the worldwide spread of orthorexia.

Eating healthy food is good, of course. However, victims of orthorexia have very specific ideas about what healthy food is. The life of people with orthorexia literally revolves around food. The signs/symptoms of orthorexia are:

  • Compulsive control of ingredient lists on nutrition labels;
  • Growing concerns about ingredient quality;
  • Cutting out more and more food groups (for example: no more sugar, no more carbohydrates, no more dairy, no processed foods, no grains, etc.);
  • An inability to eat anything other than a small group of foods considered “healthy” or “pure”;
  • Unusual interest in what others eat;
  • Thinking for hours a day about what you’re going to eat for your next meal;
  • Exhibiting high levels of anxiety when “pure” or “healthy” foods are not available;
  • Avoiding eating with other people/ celebrations because of the fear of eating what other people have prepared;
  • Obsessively following blogs about nutrition and “healthy lifestyle” on social media.

People with orthorexia may or may not have concerns about their body image. The difference with anorexia is that people with orthorexia are not so much afraid of gaining weight, but rather they are afraid of eating something that is not “pure” enough.

There are many bloggers who should be diagnosed with orthorexia themselves and who are pushing others in the direction of orthorexia (they often do it unconsciously, of course, but the damage is not reduced by this). These bloggers pose a serious danger to people who, due to age (adolescents) or other factors (lack of friends, insecurity) are extra susceptible to external influence.

What to do?

  • First, limit the time you spend on social media. Go talk to people in the real world.
  • Second, be critical of all the information you read.
  • Do you have questions about nutrition? Go to a dietician and ask all your questions directly.
  • Do you suspect orthorexia or another eating disorder in yourself? Seek help in the real world!