Content warning: This article contains discussion of the issues surrounding eating disorders and restrictive eating.
If you enjoy watching food videos as much as I do, your YouTube homepage may look a lot like mine. Populated with ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos, I often live vicariously through these people in the moments right before a meal.
In some cases, these ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos can be a very relaxing way to unwind, offering comfort through the rhythms of routine. There’s a certain calming energy that can be derived from watching strangers eat on the Internet — something that I did very often while quarantining alone. I especially admire those who make adorable bento boxes and find time to cook a proper meal amidst a hectic workday.
However, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. I can say with no hesitation that the pandemic has largely redefined my relationship with food: I am more conscious of what I consume and the way my body looks. At times, this new dynamic can be a double edged sword. While I try to avoid restrictive eating, watching food videos online sometimes elicits food guilt. For instance, when I watch vegan university students and YouTubers my age eat balanced, aesthetically pleasing meals while I eat crisps alone in bed, it’s easy to fall prey to self-comparison.
Following a huge influx of workout and weight-loss challenges on Youtube since the start of Covid-19, I felt more vulnerable to subliminal pressures about body-image. Everyone’s own relationship with food and exercise is different. Yet certain food videos promote a one-size fits all approach to dieting and weight loss — an approach that may be triggering or disquieting to viewers, especially those of an impressionable age.
Recently, I stumbled upon the YouTube channel of Abbey Sharp, a registered dietician whose niche largely stems from her commentary on ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos. With over 350K subscribers, Abbey’s channel has gained significant traction in the past year, especially since the start of Covid-19. Abbey has commented on the diets of several influencers and celebrities, including Emma Chamberlain, Grimes, Trisha Paytas, and most recently, Jackson Wang. She reacts in real-time to the video, providing estimates on their daily intake of calories and macronutrients, and expressing concern when necessary. Part of Abbey’s appeal is that her commentary is backed with scientific evidence, yet she intersperses candid comments into her explanations, openly sharing her views on her favourite foods.
Many of Abbey’s fans view her channel as a source of information to balance the misinformation about nutrition that exists in various online spaces. For instance, there are subcultures on Tumblr and TikTok that glamourise eating disorders, which has an especially pernicious influence on young, impressionable viewers, especially teenage audiences going through puberty. More often than not, influencers who are not health and fitness professionals may promote fad dieting, restrictive eating, binging and purging, framing it as a positive aesthetic transformation. In several cases, the same influencers will shy away from accountability when they receive backlash from their fanbase. Bearing this in mind, perhaps channels similar to Abbey’s from the perspective of a health professional function as necessary correctives to toxic attitudes towards food that may be spread online.
However, the voyeuristic undercurrent of food YouTube videos may also promote forms of cancel culture. Commenters on YouTube may be compelled to send malicious comments towards influencers due to the content they upload about dieting. In some ways, the voyeuristic act of judging what others eat in a day may render viewers hyper-aware of what they eat, or send the message that it’s acceptable to openly judge other people’s life choices. That said, there is a boundary between online hate and constructive criticism, and the latter is crucial to combating misinformation.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what YouTubers eat in a day (forgive me for this). Though these videos can be calming, they may run the risk of encouraging comparisons, our intrinsically pressure viewers to eat and look a certain way. What matters most is building a healthy relationship with food and a support network that works best for yourself.