For those who don’t know much about eating disorders, the terms ‘foodie’ and ‘eating disorder’ might seem as far apart as you could imagine.
The image consistently presented to us by the media when we speak about eating disorders is the stereotype of someone who is severely underweight: most often a young, white, middle-class woman suffering from anorexia.
A stereotype that leaves little room for the vast scope of complexities involved in struggling with an eating disorder, the idea that to have one is synonymous only with starvation and a low BMI ignores the nuances of the different types of eating disorder and the symptoms that can accompany them.
Statistics shared by Beat suggest that anorexia accounts for around 8% of all eating disorder cases, while binge eating disorder accounts for 22%, bulimia for 19%, and OFSED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) for 47%, making it the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder.
“There’s such a misconception that eating disorders occur in emaciated or small bodies and this is really not the case,” said Isa Robinson, an associate nutritionist and nutritional therapist specialising in eating disorders. “The vast majority of eating disorder sufferers are not in a ‘low weight’ body or BMI.
“This often means that not only might individuals think that they’re not ‘sick enough’ or worthy of treatment, which happens a lot, but it is also in the medical model whereby because services are often frighteningly underfunded and scarce, it’s not necessarily the most unwell but the lowest BMI individuals that will be referred – so this is a massive issue.”
This explains why, for so many struggling, symptoms go unnoticed. An eating disorder is a mental illness after all; the feelings of shame and need for control are the common denominator in those dealing with eating disorders, and we can’t tell if someone is dealing with those things by looking at them.
Dieting and disordered eating have become so normalised that it’s easy to forget what a healthy relationship with food looks like. Eating according to our body’s natural hunger and fullness signals and without any accompanying feelings of anxiety are a far cry from the preoccupation and ritualised food behaviours that go hand-in-hand with eating disorders: and it seems that this fixation on food could be the reason that many self-proclaimed foodies chose to dip a toe into the world of online food blogging.
As someone who set up my own vegan food page on Instagram not long before I ended up beginning a year of therapy for some long-term unresolved issues with food, it would have been near impossible for anyone who didn’t know me closely to realise I was struggling. I was constantly preoccupied with trying to control my eating, trapped in a binge-purge cycle privately: but publicly, and on social media, my tumultuous obsession with food was easily hidden by the ‘foodie’ front I put on: ‘I just really like food!! I’m always eating and cooking, see!!’
As my page and the connections I made began to grow, I started to notice more and more food bloggers speaking out about struggling with disordered eating, past and present. Some bloggers specifically dedicated their Instagram pages to their journeys in ED recovery, documenting their progress in healing their relationships with food.
One blogger I spoke to, Zoe, said that she’d started up her Instagram page (@zoefitrecovery) as a way to keep herself accountable and track her progress in recovery. “I don’t know where I would be now without it,” she said. “You give and get constant encouragement regarding food and body positivity that can sometimes be hard to do by yourself.”
While she credits the sense of community for helping her to change her relationship with food, Zoe says there are some cons to being a part of the food blogging world, such as being faced with unsolicited diet advice. She pointed out that comparison can be a big issue, giving ‘before and after’ recovery photos as an example of content that can be unintentionally damaging: “I’ve posted them in the past, but after reflecting on my reasons for posting them, I realise how harmful they can be. It keeps the stigma that eating disorders have a ‘look’ – which is far from the truth.”
A problematic trend in the food blogging sphere is the ‘FDOE’ (Full Day of Eating) post format seen dominating Instagram and TikTok feeds within the last year. Many are in agreement that the trend is harmful: there’s no denying that people struggling with any kind of disordered eating will often be paying significant amounts of attention to how much others around them are eating, resulting in unhealthy comparisons to the diet of someone living in an entirely different body. It becomes an even bigger issue when someone’s ‘full day of eats’ is shown to be a worryingly small amount of food.
Another blogger I spoke to, Becks (@talkintofu), thinks that the FDOE post format is irresponsible and has spoken out about the dangers of these kinds of posts on her own page. “I did not expect the reaction I got,” she said. “Hundreds of people were thanking me for speaking out about these videos that lead them into a comparison spiral, triggering their past or current eating disorders.” She added that unfollowing someone who chooses to post this content doesn’t solve the problem, because people may still see it on the explore page or shared on stories. “As a content creator, you have a responsibility to your followers, whether you have ten followers or 1 million.”
Obviously, not every food blogger has, or has had previously, an unhealthy relationship with food. There are of course many people who document what they eat simply because they love cooking, eating out at restaurants and trying new things. But the very act of recording our food intake can be a disordered behaviour, a way to practice some form of control over our eating, so realistically it makes perfect sense that an online community based around photographing meals would be occupied by a lot of people grappling with food struggles.
Psychotherapist Emmy Brunner, founder of The Recover Clinic, explained how thinking about food constantly and seeking out food content is a common side effect of restricting or controlling your eating. “It’s a pretty primitive reaction, when we’re hungry our body prompts us to think about food because it wants us to eat,” she said.
“Many of my past clients loved to cook for example, or would watch cooking programmes obsessively and many would obsess about what food bloggers were eating. Food is something for us to enjoy – it has many purposes, pleasure, nurture and comfort to name a few. When we begin to use food as a tool for self-harm we need to be mindful of how much we are unconsciously seeking out other mediums to fuel that eating disordered unwell voice.”
Whether the Instagram food blogging space is helpful or harmful to those in recovery from eating disorders is a complicated issue. While some say they view the community as a healing space where they’ve been able to feel positive about food again and receive encouragement from like-minded people, it’s incredibly triggering for others to be consistently faced with images of food and can undoubtedly serve to intensify obsessive thoughts.
To Isa, it’s not black and white: “I think the bottom line is having more media literacy on that what people post is not going to be what you need to eat, or not necessarily what they even eat,” she commented. “Images often distort portion sizes, so often we see portion sizes that are captured for the purpose of being an Instagram photo rather than for being a meal that meets someone’s preferences and hunger needs.”
While in agreement that ‘What I Eat In A Day’ posts are very damaging, she believes seeking out food content in recovery isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “If someone is in a better space with their relationship with food and they’re seeing someone else eating ‘normal’ foods like a chocolate bar, pastry or sandwich, that might be more helpful.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to work out whether the Instagram food blogging space is healthy for them. Personally, although I enjoy it, I like to delete the app for a bit if I’m feeling anxious and vulnerable to diet culture. Food can and should be fun: if it starts to feel stressful, that’s a pretty good indicator for me that it’s time to log off.