'What I eat in a day' Instagram posts are growing in popularity, but dietitians say they're dangerous
- 'What I eat in a day' social media posts can be well-intentioned but nutritionists warn against them.
- Influencers may have an agenda, our nutritional needs vary, and posts can lead to disordered eating.
- A growing number of content creators are moving away from the posts, despite how popular they are.
"What I eat in a day" posts have been staple content for many fitness and food influencers across social media for years.
It's perhaps human nature to be interested in what others eat.
Over the past year or so, however, the trend appears to have become more prevalent on Instagram in particular. This has led an increasing number of health experts to warn about the dangers of the posts, and some influencers have stopped posting them due to fears that they may encourage disordered eating habits.
'What I eat in a day' posts can be well-intentioned
Some influencers who share "What I eat in a day" videos or images do so with a genuine desire to help people develop healthier relationships with food. Perhaps they hope to break down diet culture by showing that carbs don't make you fat and that food is fuel, or maybe they want to inspire others to eat more sustainably by sharing plant-based meal ideas.
"I personally like to do them to give people new meal inspiration, to show that you can eat foods that you love and get great results, and live a happy and healthy, balanced lifestyle," personal trainer Anjuli Mack told Insider.
She continued: "Often you'll see mine including my favorite meal, homemade chicken nuggets and fries, or sometimes I'll throw in an ice cream or a chocolate bar. I'm all about a flexible dieting lifestyle, and I really try to encourage people all around the world to eat foods that they love in moderation."
Mack acknowledges many "What I eat in a day" posts show restrictive diets which can be "toxic," so in her posts she encourages people to work one-on-one with a coach, tailor their diets to them, and just use the meals as inspiration.
Vegan influencer Lauren Renshaw, who works in social media, told Insider she's stopped sharing the posts now but they were always well received: "I had multiple DMs from people saying my posts were helpful during their recovery from an eating disorder, and others saying it was refreshing to see someone eating a 'healthy amount of food.'"
They've grown in popularity on Instagram
There are just under 400,000 posts on Instagram with the hashtag #whatieatinaday, and law student and fitness influencer Emma Petersen believes they've increased over the past year or so based on her experience in the food and fitness community on the social network, however Instagram was unable to provide data to back this up.
"'What I eat in a day' was always popular on YouTube but only took off on Instagram about a year ago," she told Insider.
Petersen used to share the posts herself, but has currently stopped and is weighing up whether to continue or not.
The content appeals to many influencers due to its popularity, though.
"They get more engagement, it usually gets on the 'explore' page, and in terms of insights, it skyrockets," Petersen said, adding that her daily diet posts are always among her best performers.
Dietitians discourage "What I eat in a day" posts as diet is so personal
Registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert is concerned that people will choose what to eat based on what their favorite influencer or celebrity posts, "and it might actually be completely opposite of what the person needs."
Even more problematic, she says, is when the calorie intake for the day is shared, as our caloric needs are so individual, plus it's near impossible to give a 100% accurate number.
While, for some people, seeing "full days of eating" can help them get over eating disorders, the posts can do the opposite. If your diet and food intake don't match someone else's online, it might lead to feelings of guilt, or some people may seek validation in the fact that they appear to be eating less.
"I've only ever used 'what I eat in a day' posts in an extremely disordered way to justify to my anorexia that I wasn't eating too much. It didn't matter how many disclaimers or trigger warnings there were - I still used them to compare," an Instagram user named Cat commented on one of Renshaw's posts.
"It may create a false illusion of what 'healthy eating' looks like or what people should be eating, which can trigger disordered eating," registered dietitian Tai Ibitoye told Insider.
"There is also an element of food elitism and food snobbery which I don't really like. Not everyone can afford certain ingredients to make certain meals, not everyone will like certain foods, and not everyone has the time to make certain meals."
The posts 'can be extremely misleading and deceptive'
Lambert believes people sharing the posts may have an agenda, be that making it look like they eat more than they do, or that they eat "cleaner" than the reality.
"[The posts] can be extremely misleading and deceptive because it is unlikely someone will literally document everything they eat and drink in a day - they may only document things and look aesthetically pleasing, for instance," she said.
And Petersen says this has been the case for her: "I'll go into the fridge and eat three grapes, and then I'll have the crumbs at the end of a bag of chips, and I can't show that all in a 'day of eating' because I'm quite a snacky person."
Ibitoye agrees with Lambert that some influencers can have an agenda, not to mention there's often bias.
"What some people share online can be influenced by what they think their audience wants to see or it may be endorsed by brands or sponsorships," she told Insider.
Some influencers are starting to move away from the posts
With influencers like Renshaw openly stating their decision to stop doing "What I eat in a day" posts, there's increasing discussion around the topic.
Instagram users of varying follower counts have commented about no longer doing them and shared posts explaining how they can be damaging.
Renshaw, who has 26.6K followers, posted her first "What I eat in a day" in May 2020 and has shared six or seven since, but has now decided to stop, and she posted a video explaining why.
"I thought people would find it helpful to see that it's OK to listen to your body and eat what makes you feel good," she told Insider. "But with hindsight, I recognize I was only looking at the positives of these posts, blissfully ignorant of the harm they can cause and probably blinded by their popularity."
She continued: "I realized they indirectly contribute to diet culture in the way they invite comparison - sometimes even explicitly between food intake and appearance. For many who have experienced disordered eating, this harmful comparison will be unavoidable, but I also think others are affected on a more subconscious level."
Petersen, who has 87.5K followers, has come to similar conclusion in recent weeks, struggling to justify the posts.
"I worry that it feeds into disordered behavior. Even if the post helped 10,000 people, if it negatively impacted even just 10 people, I'm not sure if I want to carry on posting them," she said.
One of the most problematic aspects of the posts for Petersen is when people include a picture of their body, the subliminal message being "if you eat like me you'll look like me," which isn't true.
'If you have to post a disclaimer you shouldn't be posting it'
While there is responsibility required on the part of both content consumers and creators to be mindful of what's shown on Instagram, Renshaw believes that an influencer adding a disclaimer to a "What I eat in a day" isn't enough.
"If you have to justify posting something in the first place, you should probably think about why that is," she said in her video.
Lambert understands the good intentions behind sharing meal inspiration or showing that there's no such thing as "bad" foods, but says influencers can do so without sharing a whole day of food.
"I think there are far better ways to express our creativity," Renshaw said. "I've already seen some creators reform 'What I eat in a day' posts into meal inspiration posts such as 'A week of vegan breakfasts' and I plan on doing the same."
If you would like support with eating disorders, seek professional help or find more information here.
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