Kate Demolder looks at the 'what I eat in a day?' video trend and what it says about our relationship to food.

According to the HSE, eating disorders affect a "relatively young section of the population", with just 5-15% of people seeking help. During the pandemic, this worsened still, with a 66% increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders in 2020 compared to 2019.

So, why is the problematic food trend 'What I Eat In A Day' a recurring format in our time of need – and what can we do to stop it?

I was recently struck by an article in The Guardian about a man who eats the same lunch every day. "I have two pieces of fish, an onion, an egg, baked beans and biscuits," the piece reads. "Being a farmer means every day is the same." I drew breath. It dawned on me, as a 28-year-old woman, this was one of the only descriptions of a meal I'd read in print where the contents had been shared in a positive and functional light.

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For context, I came of age in the 2000s – when the pressure to be thin consumed women. It still does today. The pressure to maintain control, however, is one that is both inbuilt and nurtured. It is reiterated to us time and again in ways both subtle and blatant.

While an eating disorder is almost never helmed by the desire to be thin and beautiful (it is a combination of risk factors, genetics, environment and "windows of vulnerability" where stressors are heightened, according to BodyWhys), daily reminders that you should eat less and exercise more almost always are.

Contrast this, if you will, with What I Eat in a Day videos – the short, concise and often glamorised edits of the daily eating habits of the typically beautiful. They are an easy, arguably lazy format. They follow the person of interest’s day, beginning usually with a small breakfast and ending with a small evening meal. They also evade the contextual currency of that person – genetics, underlying conditions, mental health among them – which provide the contents of their body’s lived experience.

People are drawn to these videos for the same reason that we join social media and meet new people –we, as humans, are deeply curious, with an evolutionary desire to think newly and adapt to different circumstances. Sharing food details online shouldn’t be a minefield. It’s something we consider every day. Yet, the 'What I Eat In A Day’ mechanic could be seen as a vehicle for disordered eating.

It is, at its core, motivation for comparison, fear and shame. Yet posts continue to dominate social media – at time of writing, 1,260,000,000 ‘What I Eat In A Day’ YouTube videos exist. To qualify them is to necessitate the pressure of perfection, to dismiss them is to debate the existence of influencers themselves.

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Let's recap. Back in August 2019, fitness influencer Cassey Ho announced she was going to undertake a 90 day challenge to get in "the best shape of [her] life, once and for all." Fans were puzzled, not only because Ho is slim and strong – at this stage, she had been sharing exercise routines for many years – but also that she had hinted at a slightly tortuous relationship with food several times before. Then, 90 days became a year.

"Happy anniversary...to meeee!" she wrote on Instagram at the time. "It’s been exactly 365 days since I made the decision to get in the best shape of my life, once and for all. Mentally and physically.

"It was also 365 days ago that the barrage of negativity and controversy came at me like a huge tsunami. People telling me that I was a shame to all women, mentally disordered, a bad role model...all amplified by the media of course, to top it off. It was painful. But not as painful as being stuck in a place where I didn’t feel like myself."

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Ho is one of an endless number of fit-fluencers who create content about what they do, eat and avoid to lose and maintain weight – an easily-constructed mechanic influencers gravitate towards to pique interest with body conscious followers and, oftentimes, promote gifted and/or sponsored food plans, kitchenware and product.

Reactions to such videos come in thick and fast. Firstly, by way of morbid curiosity, secondly, by conditioned self-doubt. Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, by those fed up with the system. Mercifully, a number of such reactors exist.

Flipping the narrative on its head entirely is 19-year-old Ro Mitchell, a recovering anorexia nervosa sufferer whose TikTok account showcases the nourishing, nutritious and, oftentimes, indulgent, food she consumes daily. And, the message is resonating with fans: a video of her eating birthday cake has almost eight million views.

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Mitchell’s take on it is simple: she wants her followers to show that food can be enjoyed and celebrated. It’s a take that doesn’t sit well with everyone.

Food is central to these accounts, and many believe the celebration of food is spitting distance away from an obsession with it. A considered opinion, certainly, but perhaps a moot one for a country in which eating disorder clinics get little to no funding. If teens videoing cake is providing a stopgap, who are we to deride?

Yet, awareness is everything. And the awareness that the creators of these videos aren’t qualified professionals is lost on those of disordered minds.

Thankfully, regulations are being made. Following a Guardian investigation that proved that pro-ana (the promotion of behaviors related to anorexia) based content is rife on TikTok, the company banned six accounts that violated community guidelines, which prohibits content that promotes disordered eating.

TikTok also began working with eating disorder charities to direct people who search eating disorder related hashtags to their services. The crackdown was long overdue, but banning hashtags hasn’t removed triggering content from the platform. Instead, people misspell words to get around content filters, which pushes the videos underground.

Since middle-class Western women can best be weakened psychologically now that we are stronger materially, the imperative to stay slim has had to draw on more technological sophistication and reactionary fervour than ever before.

This female-centric belief of the ideal (that women maintain slimness and slimness is beautiful) exploits guilt and apprehension about our own liberation – at a time when liberation has never been closer. Unconscious personal anxieties prove a powerful force in this battle, while economic necessity all but guarantees it.

The contemporary ravages of beauty and thinness are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically. If we are to free ourselves from the dead weight that has been made of our male-contrusted beliefs, it is not system regulations or or content guidelines that will do it; it is a new way of seeing.

If you need to speak to someone, contact:

  • Bodywhys 01-2107906 or email alex@bodywhys.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48
  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.