An introduction into social media

Thanks to social media, we are fast becoming the generation learning all about life from our phones. We learn from celebrities, influencers, athletes, and other people we idolise and trust, rather than educated experts.

Gone are the days when we would go to a dermatologist for skin concerns or our GP for health advice as a first point of call. I mean, why would we when we can access this information for free, in under a minute, online?

For young adults, social media has become the first point of call for health advice. Through platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, ‘health influencers’ have major impacts on the lives of Gen-Zedders. Many Gen-Zedders report to value health influencers advice over the experts, despite that information being (most often) less accurate.

Whether we are following a modestly self-titled ‘holistic princess’ or taking notes from a controversial paleo chef, it is obvious that perceptions need to shift in order to make the experts cool again.

Self-comparison and the role of social media

It is no joke that we are glued to our phones. One study investigated the relationships between social media, appearance-focused activities, and body image concerns. The results showed that over half (57%) of the 18–29-year-old women reported checking their Instagram pages 3-5 times per day.

Of most concern, with increased social media use, comes increased self-comparison. Following health and fitness accounts has been seen to increase peoples thin-ideal internalisation, and a drive for thinness (Cohen).

Another study tested women’s internalisation of societal beauty ideals, appearance comparisons, and social media use. The study found that frequent Instagram usage had a negative impact on women’s appearance-related concerns and beliefs (Fardouly).

It’s important to remember, ‘my day on a plate’ or ‘grocery haul’ videos are highly biased and only a small snippet into the lives of health influencers. Even so, it can still be hard when faced with someone’s ‘perfect’ highlight reel, to not feel bad about your ‘far from perfect’ behind the scenes.

Keeping in mind that no one is perfect 100% of the time is equally important. Especially when you catch yourself comparing your daily diet or home-brand products to your favourite influencers’.

All bodies are different, and health can be at any shape or size depending on the individual.

The disconnection between food and body image

“You are more than your body, and your diet is not only what you eat.”

– unknown

Social media-based comparisons can have major detrimental impacts on a young woman’s level of self-esteem and value of their body. From a true holistic perspective, our diet is not only the foods we consume but also what we watch, listen to, read, and the people we choose to spend our time with.

Too often do I see young women that have developed a disconnect between their body shape and the foods they eat. It is that age-old belief that eating certain foods higher in fat, refined sugars, carbohydrates, whatever it is, will make you gain weight instantly, whereas we know that this is untrue. In fact, negative body image increases the risk of engaging in unhealthy and/or disordered eating patterns. We have become the generation that is fixated on such an extreme standard of beauty that is constantly changing. Especially depending on what is displayed on our Instagram feed at each given moment in time:

  • Elle McPherson being labelled ‘the body’, towering over others at six feet tall with legs for days during the 1980s.
  • Kate Moss pioneering the slim-framed look, quoting “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” during the 1990s.
  • Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson displaying defined and muscular abs in extreeeeemely low rise jeans during the 2000s.
  • Victoria Secret Angel clones and the rise of fit, athletic and conditioned body shapes in the 2010s.
  • Kim Kardashian and the rise of the ultimate *peach emoji* during the 2020s.

These common examples seem like they belong in another time. Especially when considering that they occur in the same society that desperately tries to push body positivity and diversity. Unfortunately, it has continued to progress as we are constantly faced with yet another “perfect” body on social media. And let’s face it, we feel bad for not resembling that look in one way or another.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors and, in a true ‘Maybelline’ quote: maybe it’s genetics OR maybe it’s excessive gym training and limited caloric intake that is unsustainable and really bad for our overall well-being instead.

Dispelling the ‘fear of fat’

We have become a generation with a fear of weight and more specifically, fat. This fear is unfounded and to aid in changing your perspective, fat helps protect us against falls, insulates us in the cold, provides moisture to your skin, and ensures our hormones are working as they should.

More food does not necessarily equal more body fat or weight gain. I believe that as a first step, we should always be adding more food in to bump up the diet quality rather than trialling restrictive eating patterns and trying to cut food out.

Indeed, we need to achieve a healthy weight with enough body fat to help aid puberty and body development, and one way to do that is to re-assess our pre-existing opinions of body fat, and the roles it plays in our health.

“I think it’s important to become okay with accepting everyone’s body is different and sometimes our bodies need different types of food. This realisation helped me focus on what was good for me (not for anyone else).”

– anonymous

The wrath of dieting culture

“My thoughts on diet culture: I think in this age it has become so normalised to hate our bodies, with the way social media stars and celebrities promote their products. Companies of these products often manipulate their way into mass consumption of their said product, which usually involves tearing down many girls’ self-esteem with unrealistic body and “beauty” standards.”

– anonymous

Twelve hundred calorie diets, fasting, juice cleanses, detoxes, weight loss teas, de-bloating vitamins and supplements, oh my! Valuing thinness, appearance and shape rather than our health and wellbeing is extremely detrimental, yet very common among the youth of today.

With this, dieting culture has brought a toxicity to our everyday food and drink choices. “We shouldn’t have X food because it is too high in calories, or we should try Y detox to help cleanse our insides of all those bad choices we made on the weekend.” I have two very strong thoughts on this:

  1. No singular food is bad for us.
  2. The common belief that we need to make up for eating certain foods through extreme practices (i.e. cleanses, detoxes etc.) needs to stop, as a healthy human body is pretty nifty in naturally taking care of itself.

“Dieting culture is very detrimental. We see all these posts on social media which promote crazy diets or ways to lose weight through disordered eating habits. It creates an extremely negative mindset and an unhealthy relationship with food.”

– anonymous

The reasons as to why someone may choose to diet are multi-factorial. Dieting gives us a sense of control when control over school, family, friends and work become uncontrollable. But what happens when we lose that control due to the natural reaction to extremely restrictive food behaviours?

To add to this notion, most of the foods we are restricting belong to core food groups that are necessary for healthy development, growth and general health. But how would we know that unless we were taught this previously? Who are we to know any better?

What we weren’t taught in school

“I’ve always wanted to learn more about food and nutrition, it was barely covered in school.”

– anonymous

With an increase in social media ‘experts’ comes an increased need for more evidence-based education to be filtered through schools, workplaces and communities. Education in all aspects of life will help combat the nutrition struggles for Gen Z and future generations.

Although there is a gap in the current system, little is being done in providing children, teenagers and adolescents with the advice they require to eat healthily and sustainably. In fact, recent research from the Butterfly Foundation showed that supporting the development of positive eating behaviours as early as primary school may help protect against more serious eating issues from developing in adolescence.

However, upon discussion with a close network of girlfriends not one of us remembered any learnings related to promoting positive relationships with food and our bodies:

“Totally, I think schools SHOULD be teaching us about the stigmas that surround healthy eating and the detriments of dieting culture.”

– anonymous

Subsequent to this lack of knowledge, lunchbox shaming, school food rules, judgment from eating in front of others, having insufficient time to eat at break times and body image comparisons can place children and teens at risk of developing disordered eating behaviours or an eating disorder that can last throughout their adolescence and beyond. Caring for our bodies through good nutrition practices during adolescence can, and will pay in dividends through your 30s, 40s, 50s and so on. Like a good investment, you are laying the foundations for years to come.

Focusing on the positives

The act of unlearning our pre-existent thoughts, beliefs and attitudes towards food can cause hesitation. After all, dieting culture has embedded itself into so many facets of our everyday lives.

We are constantly fed depictions of what it means to eat healthily in the (*coughs*) mixed opinions of society. How are we expected to choose foods that will make us feel energised, satisfied and fulfilled, let alone foods that are genuinely providing us with some nutritional benefit?

With the advice from all outlets constantly changing and often contradictory from one person to the next, it’s a no-brainer as to why we feel so bloody defeated in the race towards a healthier version of ourselves.

Unlearning this information and zoning out when your old-school work colleague pipes up during a communal morning tea to say: “Don’t eat too much of that, you will put on weight!” requires you to challenge your current ways of thinking to make space for new information. It takes repetition, practice and A LOT of stuff-ups to help facilitate such positive behavioural changes. As such, this journey towards focusing on the positives in food also requires you to be kind to yourself.

No positive change ever came from beating yourself up!

I’m not joking when I say you could give me any food in the world, and I will find a positive about it. That is because food is ‘effing’ cool and delicious, and eating a quality diet packed full of vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein, essential fats and anti-oxidants (I could go on but I won’t..) should not leave you in a constant state of anxiety.

Within my current practice as a dietitian, I feel as if I am constantly sorting fact from fiction with my clients who have avoided X food. Food that has been ostracised as by-products of social media influences, scaremongering marketing campaigns and pseudo-science. I believe that food should never be a source of stress and instead, should purely be about nourishment and enjoyment.

One way of overcoming this stress is to mentally focus on changing unhealthy attitudes towards food and focus on the positives rather than the negatives (that popular culture is so readily willing to dish out). Here are a few helpful tips to get you started:

  • Avoid terminologies like “bad/good” or “unhealthy/healthy”, any food can be included as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Pair a negative thought with a positive one. Simply put, yes that piece of cake may contain the works (i.e., butter, sugar, white flour, chocolate), however, you are out at a nice restaurant, for your best friend’s birthday who you have not seen in a few months as she moved away for university. You are enjoying the company and most importantly, you are enjoying the cake! So in the real scheme of things, who honestly cares?
  • Challenge constrictive thoughts of food towards the bigger picture. Foods may be considered a carbohydrate, protein or fat source but what other nutrients are they going to provide you that will benefit your overall health?
  • Spring-clean your Instagram feed by unfollowing unqualified influencers and tune out when someone attempts to offer you unsolicited dietary advice. Especially if that causes stress or leaves you feeling disheartened.

Where do I start?

So now that we have established that food is a lot cooler than what we have originally given it credit for, let’s begin to discuss some practical ways to ensure that you are ticking all the boxes of a healthy and nutritious diet. 

Firstly, it is critical to consider the frequency of your meals throughout the schooling or working day. Please trust me when I tell you that skipping meals is incredibly harmful to your health. You will be short-changing yourself of essential nutrients that are important for growth, development and overall well-being.

Aim to eat three regular meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) with some snacks in between to help you reach your nutrition requirements for your age and gender. By focusing on the positives of food you will be deepening your understanding of its value in your day-to-day diet. 

  1. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Aim for 2 and 5 serves, respectively, each day. 
  2. Dairy foods are the key player in providing us with our calcium recommendations which helps build our bones and teeth all while keeping our muscles, nerves and heart working properly too. 
  3. Breads, whole grains and cereals provide us with energy, fibre and B-group vitamins to help fuel us through our days. 
  4. Meats, poultry, seafood and other sources of protein (e.g. tofu, eggs, legumes and lentils) provide us with iron and protein necessary for regular menstruation, growth and development.
  5. Drinking enough water daily is equally important to help keep us hydrated.
  6. Remind yourself it is ok to have your favourite biscuits, chocolate, lollies, chips or baked goods every now and again. Treat them as an occasional food compared to an everyday food like the core food groups mentioned above.
  7. Try to exercise for health and reduce the pressure of exercising to look a certain way. Focus in on how exercise makes you feel physically AND mentally. Change it up and exercise in a way that makes YOU feel the best, not what others are doing or what they say you ‘should’ be doing.

Navigating the world of social media is extremely hard and confusing for anyone, let alone young people. If you’d like to help to know where to get started with your health, come in and see one of the team!

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References

  1. Cohen, R., Newton-John, T., Slater, A. The relationship between Facebook and Instagram appearance-focused activities and body image concerns in young women. Body Image [cited 25 Jun 2021]; 2017; 23(1):183-187. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2017.10.002
  2. Fardouly, J., Willburger, B.K., Vartanian, L.R. Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways. New Media & Society [cited 25 Jun 2021]; 2018;20(4):1380-1395. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817694499