Are Instagram Food Trends Destroying Your Diet?
Dietitians wonder if the endless food inspo the app provides is helping or hurting us.
If you're into food, there's a decent chance you use the internet to find new dishes to try at restaurants and on your own. If you're health-conscious, you probably use it to learn about the latest eating trends, ingredients, and superfoods.
One of the most popular sources of inspo? Instagram, of course. But are all these highly appealing, photo-friendly food trends (think unicorn Frappuccinos, glitter coffee, and mermaid toast) convincing us to eat things we'd never normally consider healthy in the name of aesthetics? Here's what dietitians have to say.
How Instagram Influences Your Eating Habits
One thing experts know for sure is that social media-Instagram in particular-has changed the way people think about food in general.
"Instagram food trends provide aesthetically pleasing images that also promote a certain lifestyle," says Amanda Baker Lemein, R.D., a registered dietitian in private practice in Chicago. "Because all of us are on our phones throughout much of the day, it's another way to connect with other people seeking to live this lifestyle."
And while that definitely sounds like a good thing, it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. "It is positive that people are looking to improve their lifestyle and I think it can be a great platform to promote healthy eating and help to fight against obesity, but it also may hurt that what may seem healthy on a screen may not be individually the best choice," explains Eliza Savage, R.D., a dietitian at Middleberg Nutrition in NYC.
After all, nutritional needs and preferences are pretty unique. "People may try something in order to post it for their friends, but not really understand that it may not be so great for you," Savage says. "I have plenty of clients who say 'but it was paleo' or 'but it's grain-free granola' or 'it's just a smoothie,' but don't recognize how the food may actually be thwarting their healthy intentions." (Avoid these seemingly healthy foods before you work out.)
That's where the problem actually lies: It's one thing to try out a food trend you know isn't super healthy because you want to (like a unicorn bark milkshake). But what's more concerning is the fact that there are a ton of "healthy" food trends out there that aren't actually so great for you-and plenty of people are eating them in the name of health. Where do we draw the line, and is Instagram convincing us to eat a bunch of weird food we wouldn't consider otherwise?
The Worst Instagram Food Trends
You probably don't need us to tell you that glitter coffee and unicorn toast made with food coloring aren't so great for you. But there are plenty of Instagram food trends that at first glance seem super healthy-but really aren't.
Extreme Diets and Cleanses
"Anytime someone goes to extremes with their diet, it is unhealthy," says Libby Parker, R.D., a dietitian based in California. "When too much emphasis is on one food or food category, that means you're missing out on other nutrients."
Take, for example, "fruitarians," or people who only eat fruit. "This type of diet looks very healthy and beautiful in photos, but is really nutritionally void of fat, protein, and many minerals, and can be dangerous for diabetics with high levels of carbohydrate and not much protein or fat to balance it out." While doing a diet like this short-term probably won't permanently harm your health, it can lead to malnutrition and other health issues long-term. (BTW, the mono meal plan is another fad diet you shouldn't follow.)
Parker also takes issue with trendy detoxes and cleanses, which she says are totally unnecessary. "These include dangerous products like activated charcoal (not something we should ingest), juicing (wreaks havoc on our system causing high blood sugar, dizziness, and muscle weakness), and other products like diet tea," she says. "Our bodies are equipped with all the detoxifying equipment they need: liver and kidneys and a drive for homeostasis. No special diets or supplements needed."
All the Healthy Fats
Healthy fats are all the rage right now-and that's a good thing. But too much of a good thing is definitely possible. "There are so many unqualified health claims that are thrown out on Instagram, and people follow them," Savage says, adding that things like unicorn toast and paleo muffins drenched in nut butters and chocolate create a false sense of what is healthy. "I follow a wide variety of Instagram bloggers, and there's no way some of them regularly consume what they post and maintain their weight."
In fact, Savage says that in her experience, people often don't realize that eating tons of fat-laden goodies (even ones with healthy fats!) can cause weight gain when eaten in excess. "It is challenging when clients come to me saying they have been having fat balls, paleo cookie bakes, or what have you, and don't understand why they don't feel well or are gaining weight."
Oversize Smoothie Bowls
"I cringe when I see people posting pictures of oversized açaí bowls with captions like, 'Starting my day off right!'" says Gillean Barkyoumb, R.D., founder of Millennial Nutrition. It's not that she thinks açaí bowls are bad; it's the portions that push things over the edge. "These bowls are usually two to three servings, covered in toppings like granola and chocolate shavings, and have WAY too much sugar to be considered a balanced meal. An açaí bowl can be a part of a healthy diet, but you need to consider portion size and ingredients. Unfortunately, these posts don't always indicate all the ingredients used so people can be misguided and feel good when they order one at their local juice bar."
Avocado All Day
If you look at all the salads, grain bowls, and other healthy dishes on Instagram, you'll probably notice that the people posting them seem to be eating a whole lot of avocado. "Avocados are very nutritious and packed with healthy monounsaturated fats and fiber," points out Brooke Zigler, R.D.N., L.D., a dietitian based in Austin, TX. But a lot of Instagrammers go overboard. "An entire medium avocado contains 250 calories and 23g fat," Ziegler says. "Keep your serving size to a quarter of a medium avocado, which would be 60 calories and 6g of fat."
"The rainbow lattes and food trends are fun and generally not dangerous," says Lauren Slayton, R.D., a dietitian and cofounder of Foodtrainers. "I find it more disconcerting when someone alludes to or poses with a whole pizza or fries, giving the impression that they can eat volumes of crappy food and still look and feel great."
The Upside of Food Instagram
Though there are some trends dietitians would like to see go, on the whole, they think Instagram's obsession with healthy food is a good thing. "Like anything related to social media, there's always a balance of good and bad," Lemein says. In particular, she says the intuitive eating trend (check out #intuitiveeating) promotes a healthy relationship with food by encouraging people to tune in to satiety cues. "I like this approach since it moves away from the 'all or nothing' mentality that so many diets promote," she adds.
Dietitians also love the meal-prep tips that can be found all over the app. "My favorite account is @workweeklunch because she outlines quick and simple recipes and her posts make me feel like I can do it, even with a hectic schedule as a mom," Barkyoumb says. "I'm a firm believer that meal prep is an essential tool to stay on track with a healthy diet for anyone with a busy lifestyle." She's also into the traction intermittent fasting is getting on Instagram. "There is a ton of science to support the benefits of IF (including weight loss and healthy aging), but it's not easy to do, so having a community of people on Instagram to rely on for support and guidance is essential."
Follow the Right People
Of course, you'll want to make sure the people you're following are legit if you're taking advice from them. Barkyoumb has a three-step plan for success:
1. Follow credible health professionals and dietitians on Instagram, Barkyoumb suggests. Find them using hashtags like #dietitian, #dietitiansofinstagram, and #rdchat. And don't be afraid to connect with them for advice. "Reach out to them if you have questions about a specific food trend," Barkyoumb says. (Follow these accounts that post healthy food porn.)
2. As a rule of thumb: "If it sounds too good to be true (like only eat bananas for a week and lose 10 pounds), it probably is," Barkyoumb says. (Read more about how to keep food porn from wrecking your diet.)
3. It can be tough to keep track of all the things you want to try. "Utilize the 'save' function on Instagram to note any healthy recipes you want to try or foods you want to buy during your next grocery run," she says.