May 2020 Issue
Popular Diet Trends: Instagram Diet Trends
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND
Vol. 22, No. 5, P. 16
Social media’s rise in popularity has opened up an online forum that’s reflective of our diet culture. Followers regularly see images and discussions about diet, while online ads target specific audiences wherein being thin matters.
Instagram currently has close to 130 million posts under the hashtags “diet” and “weight loss.” Scroll through these hashtags and you will find images of men and women showing off their fit bodies, before-and-after weight loss photos, images of so-called healthful meals, and motivational sayings. Many of the images and diet trends found on Instagram promote the message that thin is beautiful and it’s acceptable to try any means to lose weight.
In September 2019, Instagram and Facebook announced that they will block users under the age of 18 from seeing posts that promote certain weight loss products and cosmetic procedures.1 Although this is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough.
This article reviews current research on how social media affects eating behaviors and offers recommendations on how dietetics professionals can stay on top of diet trends and encourage clients to use social media to help rather than hinder healthful eating habits and body image.
How Instagram Impacts Eating Behavior
With the explosion of social media, especially among younger users, numerous studies have emerged on its impact on eating behaviors and body image. A 2016 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined the association between social media use and eating concerns in a large, nationally representative sample of 1,765 young adults aged 19 to 32.2 The results showed that, compared with those in the lowest quartile, participants in the highest quartiles for social media volume and frequency had significantly greater odds of having eating concerns. Researchers concluded there’s a strong and consistent association between social media use (whether measured as social media volume or frequency) and eating concerns.
A 2016 systematic review published in Body Image examined 20 studies meeting specific inclusion criteria.3 Overall, these peer-reviewed studies found that the use of social networking sites is associated with body image and disordered eating. Specifically, activities such as viewing and uploading photos and seeking negative feedback from status updates were identified as problematic.
A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders examined the disordered eating thoughts and behaviors of 996 seventh- and eighth-grade male and female adolescents.4 Disordered eating behaviors were reported by 51.7% of the girls and 45% of the boys, with strict exercise and skipping meals being the most common. Based on the study’s results, researchers concluded that there’s a clear pattern found between social media use and disordered eating thoughts and behaviors, especially in this younger age group.
Conversely, there are also body-positive Instagram accounts that challenge mainstream beauty ideals of thinness and encourage acceptance at any size. A 2019 study published in New Media & Society examined how the moods and body images of 195 women aged 18 to 30 were affected by viewing body-positive Instagram posts.5 The women were randomly assigned to view either body-positive, thin-ideal, or appearance-neutral Instagram posts. Researchers found that brief exposure to body-positive posts was associated with improvements in positive mood, body satisfaction, and body appreciation compared with thin-ideal and appearance-neutral posts. Participants also showed favorable attitudes toward body-positive accounts and were willing to follow them in the future.
Current Trends on Instagram
“Instagram is full of thin, beautiful women who endorse dieting or weight loss regimens in a way that suggests that they achieved their thinness that way rather than through genetics, photoshopping, or plastic surgery,” explains Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, a virtual practice based in New York City (alissarumsey.com). “Less than 5% of the women in the world look like that ‘Instagram aesthetic’ yet when your feed is full of these images and these diet-y messages, it can make you feel like something is wrong with you and your body.”
Nutrition professionals interact every day with clients who are exposed to the diet culture on Instagram. Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN (victoriashantaretelny.com), a national lifestyle nutrition expert, author, speaker, and corporate consultant, says the top diets and trends on Instagram are the keto, vegan, and pegan (a combination of paleo and vegan) diets.
Intermittent fasting, meal prep plans, and detox diets remain trendy. Ditto for plant-forward approaches as environmental and sustainability concerns are pushing more people to think about how what we eat impacts the climate and environment.
Retelny is also seeing “individual ingredients like apple cider vinegar (ie, Goli Gummies) trending on Instagramas a convenient, tasty way to get your daily dose of [apple cider vinegar] for gut, immunity, and weight management.” She adds that low-carb recipes with spiralized veggies are also popular.
Kathleen Meehan, MS, RD (kathleenmeehanrd.com), says her clients have recognized posts suggesting a cleanse or detox and very low–calorie diets such as Optavia. “My clients also have been seeing diets using antidiet language [diets claiming to be body positive and ‘not a diet’ while also promising weight loss] in their marketing,” she adds.
Jonathan Valdez, MBA, RDN, CSG, CDN, CCM, CDE, ACE-CPT, owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (genki-nutrition.com), mentions keto, Whole30, intermittent fasting, and a blend of these as diets trending on Instagram, noting their popularity among athletes and those trying to lose weight.
Valdez is troubled by various noncredentialed individuals disseminating nutrition information on social media outlets, including Instagram. “It can be very misleading, especially if the person [disseminating the information] has an aspiring physique,” he says. “Add ‘coach’ to their name, and they may start dispensing inappropriate nutrition advice to a vulnerable public.”
Valdez believes Instagram should follow in Google’s footsteps and adopt Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T), an algorithm that helps ensure valid and credible information is presented to the public.
Keto and Intermittent Fasting
Ketosis is a metabolic adaptation that has allowed humans to survive during periods of famine. When the body’s glycogen stores are depleted, the body breaks down fat and produces ketones, which provide energy for the brain when glucose is scarce.
Ketosis can be achieved either by fasting or by strictly limiting carbohydrate intake to less than 20 g to 30 g per day. Fat is increased to about 70% to 80% of total calories while protein intake is moderate. A keto diet eliminates starches, grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. In addition, nuts are limited to those lower in carbohydrates and only a handful of lower-carbohydrate fruits (ie, berries and melon) are permitted.
Although many claim weight loss by following the keto diet, nutrient gaps exist, especially for numerous vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that tend to be found in the eliminated foods and food groups. Long-term adherence to a keto diet is extremely difficult, and many individuals tend to follow a modified version that has a slightly different carb-to-fat ratio of about 55% fat, 30% protein, and 15% carbs.
Intermittent fasting involves days of restricted calorie intake in flux with days where an appropriate or “normal” number of calories is eaten. There are several versions of intermittent fasting, including the 5:2 format, in which two nonconsecutive days are spent fasting, during which only 25% of daily calorie needs (about 500 kcal) are addressed. During the remaining five days of the week, a normal caloric intake is consumed.
A second version is referred to as time-restricted feeding, in which dieters consume all daily requirements within an eight-hour window. The remaining 16 hours are spent fasting, with the exception of noncaloric beverages.
While there are claims of weight loss when following intermittent fasting, the individual doesn’t establish healthful eating habits. Also, it should be noted that the diet is contraindicated in those with diabetes, especially for those on medication.
Recommendations for RDs
Rumsey recommends that RDs talk to clients about their use of social media and how it affects them. “It’s really important that people curate their social media feed so that it doesn’t impact their mental or emotional health,” says Rumsey, who suggests clients “unfollow” anyone who makes them feel poorly about themselves, causes them to compare themselves with others in a negative way, or touts diets or restrictive eating such as calorie counting.
Recommend clients follow more nondiet, weight-inclusive, and body-positive accounts, she adds. “There are so many wonderful people on Instagram sharing positive health messages that can help people feel better about themselves and improve their physical and mental health,” Rumsey notes.
Meehan says RDs who use Instagram must consider the images they choose to display on their account. “Image after image of ‘perfect’ food styling can actually leave viewers feeling worse, and images that highlight one type of body can contribute to body image distress,” she explains.
In addition, Meehan emphasizes that “many dietitians have thin privilege, and this can subtly suggest that there is one way to be healthy.” When appropriate, it’s best to acknowledge this practice and limit your imagery in social media messaging, she says. In addition, share and highlight accounts from providers in larger bodies, which may encourage clients to follow accounts that promote self-care, intuitive eating, and health-at-every-size messaging.
— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, is the founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (http://tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. Her cookbooks include Smart Meal Prep for Beginners, The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook, The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, The Greek Yogurt Kitchen, and the recently released The Best Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook and The Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook. She’s a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to U.S. News Eat + Run and Muscle&Fitness.com.
1. Rosenbloom C. Instagram and Facebook ban ‘miracle’ diet posts, but there’s much more work to do. The Washington Post. September 24, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/instagram-and-facebook-ban-miracle-diet-posts-but-theres-much-more-work-to-do/2019/09/23/0829a872-de26-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html
2. Sidani JE, Shensa A, Primack BA. The association between social media use and eating concerns among U.S. young adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(9):1465-1472.
3. Holland G, Tiggemann M. A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body Image. 2016;17:101-110.
4. Wilksch SM, O’Shea A, Ho P, Byrne S, Wade TD. The relationship between social media use and disordered eating in young adolescents. Int J Eat Disord. 2020;53(1):96-106.
5. Cohen R, Fardouly J, Newton-John T, Slater A. #BoPo on Instagram: an experimental investigation of the effects of viewing body positive content on young women’s mood and body image. New Media Soc. 2019;21(7):1546-1564.