Social Media’s Role in our Relationship with Food: Insight from a Registered Dietitian

by | Dec 1, 2020 | Content Creation, Reflections, Social Media

As a healthcare provider, I never thought social media would be as important to my practice as it has become. As I’ve come to understand the value in having a social media presence for myself, I’ve also learned more and more about how my clients interact with the various platforms.

To give you a better understanding of what this is, I’ll ask you to try something with me. Open Instagram and search for the hashtag #healthy. Out of the 164 million posts that pop up, what do you see? Here’s what I see: Slim bodies, toned bodies, thin white women, meals with caloric information posted above, diet supplements, “cheat meals,” picture-perfect meal planning, and lots of gym selfies. Now ask yourself – what message does this send to you about what “healthy” means? What about what “healthy” looks like?

Part of what I specialize in as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is supporting those with eating disorders, disordered eating, and chronic dieting. I help my clients heal and strengthen their relationship with food and their bodies. Here’s what I hear from my clients about those images described above: “If I don’t look like that or eat like that, I’m not healthy. I need to be better.”

If this thought has ever crossed your mind after scrolling through these types of images, you are by no means alone. What it perpetuates is the thought that your health or even your self-worth is connected to your appearance, and more exposure to this type of messaging is linked to disordered eating and body image disturbances. It is also linked to a decreased ability to understand and respond to your body’s own sensations versus relying on external information to make food-related decisions (such as the food rules that accompany various diets). In other words, it does not serve to strengthen trust between you and your body, with can translate to less trust around food.

So what’s a healthier way to interact with social media to strengthen that trust? Here are three tips to start:

1. Set boundaries. Do the accounts you follow make you feel the way you want to? Do they make you feel inspired and empowered to be exactly who you are today? Or do they make you feel “less than,” or strengthen the “Food Police” that sit in your head? Setting boundaries may look like unfollowing accounts, and I like to suggest muting as an option for those who you have more sensitive relationships with (i.e. that friend from high school who keeps trying to sell you her weight loss plan). My overall advice? Avoid accounts that approve dieting and/or weight stigmatizing messages. Period.

2. Get curious. Do you see all different body sizes, races and ethnicities, ages, gender identities, and abilities in your feed? Do you see your own body reflected in your feed? If not, why not? Our culture is inherently fat-phobic, so it’s unfortunately not surprising that the hashtag #healthy (or the hashtag #beautiful for that matter) didn’t turn up one photo of a person who is fat. However, we know that having a broader conceptualization of beauty, both inner characteristics and external appearances, can actually support a stronger relationship with food. So get curious about who and what you interact with on social media, and if it’s supporting the relationship you want to have with food, your body, and the world around you. 

3. Set the tone. Lastly, I like to recommend following accounts that provide affirming messages. A good place to start is the hashtag #intuitiveeatingofficial on Instagram if you are interested in learning more about Intuitive Eating, which is an evidence-based way to develop a trusting relationship between your body and your food. It’s something I believe in heavily as a dietitian and use as a tool with all of my clients!