Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but what about when it comes to dieting?
The food diary genre on YouTube is booming. A quick search for “what I eat in a day” videos garners almost 30 million hits—everything from models’ food diaries to weight-loss diets to diet plans from vegan body builders. Vloggers (some of whom have a background in health and fitness, although most are just normies with no nutrition credentials) show off their enviable diets with pretty visuals, groovy playlists, grocery lists and even cooking tutorials.
Searches for this content have steadily spiked over the past 10 years—and are continuing to rise, confirms Nicole Bell, a communications manager for the platform. “Most interestingly, we see the highest YouTube search interest for these videos in spring (usually April, May and June),” she notes, “which is very different than search interest in ‘diet’ which reliably spikes in January each year.” While some videos do have “bikini body” and “summer body” in the title—hence their pre-summer popularity—perhaps the fact that these kinds of videos spike at different times points to something else: Diets just don’t work. And so we spend the first half of the year wrestling with them, until we give up and vow to try again next year.
The popularity of these videos—which at first glance seem like harmless oversharing—begs the question: Why are we so curious about what other people are eating? It’s not just voyeurism. The young people (judging from their profile pics, and the fact that YouTube is most popular among the 18-24 demographic) consuming this content are not just curious about what their fave beauty gurus eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner—they want to emulate their exact diets with the goal of losing weight. Click on any video and you’ll find viewers asking for weight loss tips, like the commenter who asked model YouTuber Valeria, “i asked on ur insta how u shape ur hips…is it genetics?” And while it *is* possible to alter your physique through diet, the fact remains that all bodies are different, and what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone.
These videos also perpetuate diet culture, defined by writer and body positivity speaker Kate Browne as “a system of knowledge, values and meanings that support interpretations of personal health choices as moral character.” In other words, we place higher value on slimmer bodies—as though the ability to subsist on a steady diet of stir-frys and smoothies is one step closer to sainthood.
So, how much can we actually change the way we look by what we eat?
YouTubers like High Carb Hannah, Liezl Jayne Strydom, MissRemiAshton and more all promote weight loss through their meal plans—and imply that if you follow their recommendations, you will drop pounds. In one of High Carb Hannah’s vegan weight-loss tips videos—which currently has 900,000 views—she suggests her followers can eat an unlimited amount of calories providing that they come from vegan foods. (She also notes that eating this way is how she lost 70 pounds; a video documenting her weight loss journey currently has 7.5 million views.) On the other hand, in one of Liezl’s most popular videos, she recommends eating 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day (via smoothies, black bean “salad” sandwiches, chickpea “guacamole,” veggies and chicken breast). Doing this, she says, will help you lose 30 pounds in 12 weeks—even though the daily recommended intake for women is approximately 2,000 calories, and most experts recommend losing one to two pounds per week, max.
Unsurprisingly, Toronto-based nutritionist and eating disorder specialist Emily Tam says following someone else’s eating patterns is neither realistic nor a healthy way to lose weight. “People can achieve a thinner body through a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. Or a low-fat diet. Or a no-foods-containing-whatever diet. Really, any way of eating that involves calorie restriction will produce weight loss,” she says. “Is it a realistic expectation, though? Very often, no. It’s largely our genes that determine our body shape and weight. And for those who manage to transform their body, if they had to change the way they were eating to a point where their diet isn’t truly enjoyable and satisfying, the odds are that they won’t be able to maintain those changes long-term and, in turn, to maintain that body type.”
There are also often financial barriers to eating like a YouTuber. “It also seems that many of these creators are also financially privileged and have the means for their diet to include plenty of pricey foods,” Tam says. “I saw a lot of avocados, organic vegetables and specialty nutrition products [in] these videos.”
Does consuming videos like these pose any negative emotional side affects?
Trying—and failing—to eat like your favourite YouTuber can take a mental toll. “A person who doesn’t succeed in changing their diet to emulate another person may end up feeling poorly about oneself. They may think ‘I failed the diet’ when really, ‘the diet failed me,’ would be more accurate,” Tam says.
It’s not surprising that the majority of these videos, especially ones focussed on weight loss, are made by women. “For girls and young women in particular—because it seems that nearly all of these videos are created by young, fit, thin women—watching these videos might trigger self-conscious emotions, such as shame and envy,” says Tam. “I think it would be hard for many viewers, particularly teen girls and young women, not to engage in comparison and not to experience some self-consciousness about their weight or shape.”
I asked Tam to take a look at one of Hannah’s most popular videos in her “maximum weight loss” series. Her take? “I do appreciate that she points out how harmful it is to restrict intake to 1,200 calories per day,” Tam says. “But [her meal plans] are very low in fat—too low to be satisfying for many people, and her claim that a high-carbohydrate, low-fat, plant-based diet is the path to optimal weight loss is problematic.” (It’s also worth noting that this style of eating hasn’t always worked for Hannah herself, who mentions in one video that she once gained 30 pounds as a result of eating 30 bananas a day.)
Perhaps equally as bad as the vlogger’s unfounded nutritional advice is her messaging. “Promoting the pursuit of weight loss is in itself problematic, then there’s her reasoning for recommending a higher calorie intake than other weight loss plans—so you preserve muscle mass to ensure you look good when you get to your goal weight. Yuck to that messaging for body-shaming and implying that anyone can reach their goal weight if they follow her plan.”
Is there any educational value to ‘what I eat’ vlogs?
If the videos don’t focus on shedding pounds, they *can* be educational in terms of learning about different cultures and cooking methods. “I do think that there can be positive education value when they’re not centred around achieving a change in body shape or size,” Tam says. “These types of videos can also help people learn new food skills when, for example, they show the creator preparing ingredients and putting a meal together.”
What you likely won’t learn about, however, is nutrition—because virtually none of these “what I eat” content creators are actually nutritionists. “I didn’t come across any videos created by someone with legitimate nutrition education or training, and yet in at least a couple, the YouTuber made unsubstantiated or outright false nutrition and health claims,” she says. (For example, in one of her cooking hack videos, Hannah says that sautéeing vegetables in oil is “literally the worst thing you can do” if you want to lose weight—despite research that shows low-fat diets aren’t any more successful than higher-fat ones.
Why are these videos so popular?
This phenomenon is nothing new. “Lifestyle and celebrity magazines have included food diaries of movie stars long before YouTube blew up,” says Tam. “That ‘what I eat a day’ videos created by people who are thin or who have achieved significant weight loss seem to be exceptionally popular is, I think, a reflection of the pervasiveness of diet culture.”
The bottom line? No one diet can promise to enhance your health or make you look a certain way: “It’s important to keep the big picture in mind,” says Tam. “Good health can be achieved by eating all kinds of foods.”