Our guest blogger and regular NHD contributor, Emma Berry, considers the popularity of TikTok and asks whether it is a useful platform for spreading nutrition information, or is it simply opening another can of worms...
Social media has had a substantial impact on our lives. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are just some of the well-known platforms, but in recent years TikTok has become more popular.
TikTok allows its users to share short video content. Videos can be linked through the use of popular hashtags, tagging other users or using a specific background music clip.1 TikTok seems to appeal to a younger demographic than other social media platforms. In a recent Pew Research survey report, it was noted to be popular with teenagers, with 18-29 years old being the largest users out of the adult ages.2
Unsurprisingly, many videos and hashtags bring up the topic of nutrition.
Before writing this, I decided to search #nutrition to see what might appear. Using just #nutrition, you can find lots of different types of videos. Some of these videos offer recipes, others are vlogs that report what someone eats in a day, and there are also people giving out nutrition advice.
There appears to be a variety of different accounts creating this content. Some people openly post nutrition or dietetic credentials on their profile biog, while others list themselves as personal trainers. However, there are also some people who are posting nutrition advice from their experience of losing weight and others who don’t share any information on their own expertise in this area. As videos can be uploaded and shared from across the world, it can be very hard to tell whether they come from a trustworthy source, or not.
Some professionals are using this kind of platform to battle against a wealth of misinformation and as a way to share learning.
During the pandemic, TikTok has been used by the World Health Organisation to share COVID-19 information.3 The UK Government has also been using TikTok, alongside other social media platforms, to encourage users to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.4 Recently, the British Dietetics Association (BDA) have started working with TikTok on a campaign against spreading misinformation5 and inviting those who use the platform to get in touch so they might be featured on the BDA’s account.6
It’s great that organisations and professionals are working to reduce the spread of misinformation, but is TikTok a useful tool for nutrition or not? Well, to date, there has been limited research into nutrition and TikTok. A recent Masters thesis7 investigated whether TikTok could be useful for improving nutrition education and cooking skills for adolescents, finding positive results. Although this was only a small pilot study, it demonstrated some positive aspects of using a video-based platform for targeting young people.
For some individuals, TikTok may also be an avenue to finding a community and gaining support, as research by Herrick et al (2020) demonstrates for those recovering from eating disorders.8
There has been research into other commonly used social media apps too, such as Instagram, in a range of areas. Like TikTok, the users of Instagram also tend to be younger, but it can also reach older age groups too.2 There has been research into the way influencers and advertisers promote food and drink products on the platform9 and the impact of Instagram use on eating disorders such as orthorexia nervosa.10
Although some studies highlight how social media can impact nutrition and health negatively, others present an opportunity to learn from the existing research and improve these platforms. For example, in 2019, Instagram tightened its rules around promoting diet products and surgery for under 18s11 and, recently, Pinterest banned weight loss ads on its platform.12
Although these are just two examples of nutrition and wellbeing changes, with so much user-generated content on platforms such as TikTok, it would be very challenging to restrict all of this content. Instead, using algorithms based on account use and encouraging young people to fact check information before believing it, may be a more realistic approach. However, the full extent of how TikTok impacts nutrition and nutritional choices, as well as how it might be used to support nutrition learning, ultimately requires more research.
Emma Berry, Freelance ANutr
NHS & University of Aberdeen
Emma is a freelance nutrition writer and is interested in Public Health.
She is also a PhD student in Health services Research
and works in NHS research and development.
- BBC. 2019. What is TikTok? [Online Video]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/technology-47160791. Accessed 26th July 2021.
- Marketing Charts. 2021. Social Networking Platforms’ User Demographics Update 2021. [Online]. Available at: https://www.marketingcharts.com/digital/social-media-116909. Accessed 26th July 2021.
- TikTok. N.d. Covid-19. [Online]. Available at: https://www.tiktok.com/safety/en/covid-19/. Accessed 2nd August 2021.
- UK Government. 2021. Leading social media platforms unite to support COVID-19 vaccine drive. [Online]. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/leading-social-media-platforms-unite-to-support-covid-19-vaccine-drive. Accessed 26th July 2021.
- TikTok. 2021. TikTok launches new #FactCheckYourFeed series on diet and exercise. [Online]. Available at: https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-gb/tiktok-launches-new-factcheckyourfeed-series-on-diet-and-exercise. Accessed 26th July 2021.
- The British Dietetics Association. 2021. TikTok. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/tiktok.html. Accessed 26th July 2021.
- Torres, M. 2020. Teaching Nutrition Education and Cooking Self-Efficacy Through TikTok Videos: A Pilot Study [Masters Dissertation]. California State University, Northridge. Available from: https://dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/218433/Torres-Maria-thesis-2021.pdf?sequence=1
- Herrick SSC, Hallward L, Duncan LR. 2021. "This is just how I cope": An inductive thematic analysis of eating disorder recovery content created and shared on TikTok using #EDrecovery. Int J Eat Disord. 54(4):516-526. doi: 10.1002/eat.23463.
- Reagan R, Filice S, Santarossa S, Woodruff SJ. 2020. #ad on Instagram: Investigating the Promotion of Food and Beverage Products. The Journal of Social Media and Society. 9(2):1-28.
- Turner PG, Lefevre CE. 2017. Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eat Weight Disord. 22, 277–284. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2
- BBC. 2019. Instagram clamps down on diet and cosmetic surgery posts. [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-49746065. Accessed 28th July 2021.
- The Guardian. 2021. Bye bye BMI: Pinterest bans weight loss ads in first for major social networks. [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/jul/02/bye-bye-bmi-pinterest-bans-weight-loss-ads-in-first-for-major-social-networks. Accessed 28th July 2021.