Why Instagram Is Ruining Your Diet And Your Mental Health
As a Dietitian, it's my job to promote healthy eating, to recommend ways to improve your diet, and to guide you to being the healthiest version of yourself possible. I can't always see everybody in person or have a telephone consult with them. This is where social media is an incredibly valuable tool. It gives myself, and others in the health and wellness field, easily accessible tools to reach an incredible amount of people.
But what happens when reality doesn't match our "best me" online persona?
There are a few things that bug me about social media and the health world. Things that go against what we are working so hard to achieve.
Small changes don't seem good enough
We teach about making small changes. Yet social media makes you feel that if you're not having a daily cold pressed juice, with superfood powders after your 10km run, then following it up with a ginormous salad prepared at home, and then snacking on gourmet raw bliss balls that cost $5 each, then you're not healthy enough. It's not only our weight, and our appearance, but our health that has become something else we can feel inadequate about.
1. Health is not a competition. You don't have to be the one spending the most money, buying the trendiest "health foods". Healthy eating is not comparing what you ate with someone's photoshopped, light filtered, gourmet flat lay. You know what's healthy? Wholefoods. I don't care how you eat them (except deep fried), just eat them. Chuck some greens in a bowl, dump in a can of tuna in olive oil or spring water, add some cherry tomatoes, cucumber, onion, and some dried dill from those little glass spice jars, and squeeze some lemon juice (then curse because the tiniest cuts you have on your fingers get coated in acid). Grab a fork, sit down, and eat it. Dinner? Frozen vegetables nuked for a couple of minutes in the microwave with some of last night's chicken, a bit of avocado and if you're extra hungry, some plain quinoa you prepared earlier. It doesn't always have to be fancy!
2. Any change that reduces the amount of processed, refined foods you eat, and sees you eating more wholesome, natural foods, is a step in the right direction. Don't compare your healthy, with another person's healthy.
3. That guilt you feel about buying a cold pressed juice for $10 and it's gone in about 3 minutes is legit. Eat more greens and veggies at your main meals - make that a habit, and you can save yourself the ten bucks.
4. You know you could make those balls at home for about $1 each, but you honestly can't find the time, or afford the appliances. That's ok, they're not the only healthy snack - eat an apple and a spoon of peanut butter, straight from the tub and you're good to go.
How much can you cut out?
Free from foods are rife on social media. You can get pretty much everything free - gluten, dairy, sugar, fructose, soy, fodmap, casein, nut, carb free. Great for those with true intolerances, but for most of us, it can make us feel that it's more than one thing that seems to be the "enemy" of our health/diet. We've struggled to lose weight, our skin isn't the greatest, our energy is low, and we feel like we've tried everything. So we think maybe we have to cut things out? People are hash tagging all kinds of "free", so we try it. Often hampering our health in the process by not learning the whole truth about these styles of diets, and their downfalls.
Food has to be picture perfect
We feel so much pressure to be 'picture-perfect' ourselves, but now our meals must be too. I eat plenty of meals that are perfectly healthy but due to my schedule, I don't have time to make it pretty, or style and shoot it for the people who now expect these images as standard food images on Instagram. I actually lose followers if I post "ugly/realistic" meal images. Fair enough people like pretty pictures - but placing such high expectations on the foods we eat can not only cause us even more anxiety choosing meals, but it means we're stressing ourselves out over what we are going to eat, and not even for our own benefit! Purely because of what people might think if it didn't look 'healthy' enough, 'fresh' enough, 'colourful' enough. Stress around meal times can cause us digestive issues. Maybe try choosing healthy meals for yourself, regardless of how they photograph, then sit and enjoy them mindfully. Your digestive issues may reduce without even needing to go "free-from" things!
Eating this? Forget it, you have to eat this instead!
We feel good that we've made some changes to our diet for the better. Only to read that what we've done isn't that great, and that we should replace it with something else. Typically more expensive, more difficult to locate, and/or something you don't really know how to use. Even if that's not the case: You try it, you hate it, you give up, you go back to your first food and feel like you'll never be a "healthy" eater. Defeated attitudes lead to a binge, then you feel even worse.
There will always be food news, and new information about food and nutrients. It's great to be informed, but getting so obsessed with having foods that are promoted for various things such as weight loss, great skin, anti-aging, sleeping-better, living longer etc can cause your diet to be quite unbalanced. The same goes for cutting out foods or food groups in their entirety for being "poisonous" or the latest trend. There is no one food that will cure your ailments. There are specific foods that can help certain conditions, but filling up on them and not including others is simply just another unbalanced diet. Focus on what delicious healthy foods you can add to your current diet, rather than take out, or replace.
The joy of food is lost in a snap
I adore healthy food. I really do. I love the colours, the tastes and the incredible things you can make with fresh wholesome foods. Yet I dare say I'm not the only health professional or health food blogger/instagrammer who teeters off from the strict Instagram-implied healthy eating regulations. I occasionally enjoy a dessert made with sugar, a gluten free pizza slice (or 3) with cheese, and some hot chips. Most of my diet is filled with wholesome goodness based around foods my body tolerates. So why is it that we feel shame when we eat these 'treat' foods on occasion? We know we should be healthy, so if for the most part, you do eat well, and live a lifestyle that promotes good health at least 80% of the time - why on earth are we so harsh on ourselves for enjoying something that is such a pleasure? Why should we feel guilty for having a bit of indulgence? Using the term 'everything in moderation' is something I hate saying, because it can easily be used as an excuse far too often. But that doesn't mean we can't occasionally have a take away meal, or enjoy a piece of cake on our birthday that isn't raw, organic, gluten free, paleo, and full of superfoods. I mean, I'd probably love that as a birthday cake (I love normal flourless mud cake too!), but if that's not your thing, don't feel guilty for wanting the traditional version. Food is meant for us to thrive, but it's also one of life's greatest pleasures. Don't get so caught up in being the 'healthiest' version of yourself that you forget to actually enjoy food, period.
See it, want it, eat it
You're looking for healthy food inspiration, and Instagram has bucket loads. Now your feed is full of tempting healthy food that actually triggers your brain to crave it. At the rate we check our phones, and scroll through our food-filled feeds, we're likely to overeat and/or choose those kinds of foods. You know what foods gets the most likes on social media? Desserts and sweet snacks. That's why you see so many of them. Your feed is full of them, and now you want them. Perhaps you're eating more sweets than usual because you think they're wholefood healthy versions, and your excuse for having them is because 'they're good for you'? That may be the case, but they're still meant to be occasional foods. It may be the reason you can't shift those pesky kilos.
The bodies behind the diets
I often come across amazing health food accounts with incredible snacks posted daily. There are brownies, pancake stacks, smoothies, gourmet fruit platters, cookies, fudge, ice creams, breads, cakes, etc etc. Followed by post-workout pictures of toned abs, lean legs, silky tanned skin, and very cool workout gear. It's easy to get caught up in these images thinking that if that person looks like that, then I must be able to eat these foods as much as them too. That this person must be onto something that I don't know. You work out, but you don't look like them. You eat well, and you don't look like them. You wonder how on earth all these healthy people eating all these delicious desserts, snacks, and gigantic smoothies, and are still so damn lean. Check their profile - they're likely 16-18 years old, still living at home, and still at school. If you're a 30 year old woman, you wouldn't compare your body and what you eat with a 16 year old girl at a cafe, or in the street. You know better. You know that this young woman is still developing and has a totally different lifestyle than you, with different things going on than you. Don't let the headless post-workout shots get you down. Work on your own body - don't compare it with others. Work on your own diet - don't compare it with others. Especially not those from a different age group. We all require different nutrients, and amounts of foods at varying stages of our lives.
Inspiration for healthy living is great. When inspiration turns into self-hate, low self-esteem, constant comparisons, and even judgemental comments from people you have never even met about what you eat, how you look, what you wear, where you live, where you eat, what you do, what you believe etc - it's vicious, un-neccesary, and can be really hurtful. Luckily I am yet to really experience such attacks but not all have to come from other people on social media. The internal dialogue you have with yourself, especially at that subconscious level, when you view all of these images. The 'highlights reel' of other people's lives - there's often jealously, envy, and comparison. It's human nature. But it's also contributing to a lack of self worth. Your not good enough if you don't eat this, if you don't eat at this cafe, if you include this in your diet, if you don't workout as often as someone else, if you can't run as fast as someone else, if you're not as bendy as other yogis, and if your not as lean as other foodies. There's a lot of great ideas floating around social media and for many people, building a supportive network of likeminded people is a fantastic way to stay amongst the health scene and keep focused on being the healthiest version of you possible. For others though, it can be a really dangerous zone to place yourself in. Figure out what you want from social media. If it's not providing that for you, you don't need to be a part of it. You don't have to check your Instagram every day if you don't want to. You don't have to photograph every meal you eat. You don't have to do a post-workout selfie. You don't have to follow the accounts that post incredible abs, butts, and thighs. You don't have to follow those who appear to eat incredibly well for each and every meal.
You don't have to take part in it, if it doesn't work for you. Delete the accounts you don't get joy or real benefit from; unfollow the people that post things that you thought would motivate you, but instead make you feel less. You've always had the power over social media and its effects on you - so take it back and make it work for you. Whatever your health goals.