What Happened to Healthy Eating?

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As January kick starts a new round of fad diets, food and drink editor Lucy Warmington discusses the culture of social media, and going back to basics. Content warning: Eating Disorders.

For many of us, January is synonymous with fad diets and healthy eating trends. While some trends, such as dry January, are clearly beneficial, others encourage an unrealistic and unsustainable diet culture. We all know the importance of eating healthy, the benefits it provides to our sustained mental and physical health. However, our understanding of what healthy eating actually means seems to be constantly changing at an alarming rate, especially in the age of social media. 

Social media has created an oversaturation of information that makes it difficult to separate pseudoscience, clickbait, and sponsored content, from the helpful advice and recipes endorsing a positive relationship to food. In certain cases, the constant exposure to healthy eating trends and info-spreads can cultivate a lesser known form of disordered eating called orthorexia nervosa. This disorder embodies an obsession and preoccupation with healthy eating, pure diets, and the origin and composition of food, and includes restrictive dietary behaviours. 

The constant exposure to healthy eating trends and info-spreads can cultivate a lesser known form of disordered eating called orthorexia nervosa.

The culture surrounding healthy eating is definitely more positive than in the past. The emphatic focus on body image and weight loss has given way to concerns on how to lead a healthier lifestyle and foster a balanced relationship to food. However, I find it impossible to open social media without being faced with hundreds of cooking videos, lifestyle influencers, and healthy eating gurus. The problem is located at the very root of social media. Bite-size nuggets of information are played in repeated 10-second videos which aim to capture the decreasing attention spans of users: “One healthy meal to increase your calorie deficit. Two ingredients to readily replace carbs. Three foods to boost your mood.” The rate and intensity at which this information is shared with us is frankly overwhelming and, based on the social media response, appears to lead to an obsession with healthy eating that is hard to self-identify or anticipate. While there is no fault to be solely placed on Instagrammers - perhaps they share their content in good faith - hundreds of other Instagrammers are echoing the same refrain,  but with slight variations. Suddenly, you’ve blinked and most foods are subject to critique. 

Now, guilt for breaking a diet isn’t new, but even I have started to notice people who have never partaken in diet culture suddenly change their coffee order to avoid too much ‘fatty’ milk, or suddenly mention their guilt about eating white pasta instead of whole wheat pasta as if such guilt is warranted. For my part, I’ve subconsciously begun to feel unhealthy if my meal contains white pasta, white rice, or even bread, despite these foods not necessarily being unhealthy. Such a mindset can devolve into disordered eating, which isn’t beneficial to anyone’s physical or mental well-being.  

If social media becomes the only channel through which people gather information on healthy eating, then all nuance is lost. A mere ten years ago, the understanding of healthy eating found in popular women’s magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar, suggested meticulous step-by-step diets, rules to follow, rules to ignore, and dramatic lifestyle changes that led to fad dieting and a rampant culture of eating disorders in young women. Social media now threatens the same results. A direct comparison to Irish Times, The Guardian and New York Times articles reveals that although dieting is still a heavily discussed topic, there is more room for consideration. Ten years ago, most of the articles in these specific publications simply emphasised a varied and balanced diet containing all the groups of the food pyramid. Today, they may discuss the trending diets of the moment, such as the Mediterranean or DASH diet plans, but the difference is that the actual composition and effects of diets are more rigorously explored and delicately weighed. The overarching message usually comes full-circle to ‘all in moderation’, ‘eat this whilst still enjoying food’, or ‘a varied and balanced diet is ultimately the basis of healthy eating’. However, this nuanced exploration is lost through the rapidness and unreliability of information on social media.

Ten years ago, most of the articles in these specific publications simply emphasised a varied and balanced diet containing all the groups of the food pyramid.

The advice surrounding healthy eating is bound to evolve, and even rightfully reflect the environmental impacts of food; but the conversations surrounding healthy eating have become toxic. Dieting has become an exaggerated association of everything being unhealthy unless proven otherwise. Anything that is not included in social media’s preconceived image of healthy eating is simply bad, even when eaten in moderation.  

The conversations surrounding healthy eating have become toxic.

Perhaps it is time to return to the universally agreed upon standard of healthy eating: a varied and balanced diet containing appropriate proportions of all of the food groups. The Irish Heart Foundation suggests that “healthy eating is all about eating the right amount from each shelf [of the food pyramid]”. Just like we were first taught in primary school, continue to take mostly from the fruit and vegetables group, then wholemeal cereals (breads, pastas, rice), followed by dairy or dairy alternatives, proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and pulses. Then finally, a small amount (but still an amount) of unsaturated fats. The HSE states that going without any of these nutrient groups risks malnutrition. Come dinner time, organisations such as Croí recommend that one quarter of your plate should be protein, one quarter should be carbohydrates, and half should be vegetables. This is essentially healthy eating.