Algorithms and Diet Culture: How TikTok Can Establish Disordered Eating Habits
What happens when TikTok's algorithm shows you the wrong content?
My mother’s homemade pasta sauce takes 12 hours to make.
Every Sunday at 8 a.m., my mother begins the process of grinding fennel seeds to mix into her homemade beef and pork meatballs. After sauteeing yellow onions and garlic in the largest pot in the house, the meatballs and chicken thighs are seared on all sides before the tomato sauce and paste are added. A twig of fresh rosemary from her garden and the holy trinity of Italian spices (oregano, basil and parsley) are added to her discretion. As the sauce simmers on the stove for the entirety of the day, the house radiates the strong yet earthy smell of garlic and boiling tomatoes.
The recipe has been labeled as my mother’s signature dish not for the extravagant flavor but for the history and tradition behind the meal. With every Sunday pasta dinner, my parents shared stories of my great-grandmother, who immigrated from the Abruzzo region of Italy.
My mother idolized her grandmother’s use of cooking to unite her family, and she respected her by keeping the tradition alive.
So when I declined to eat her dish one fateful day in high school on the basis of “healthy eating,” I could tell I’d hurt my mom’s feelings.
My credible source for labeling the meal as unhealthy: TikTok.
Algorithms and Diet Culture
The social media app’s fame is heavily attributed to its cutting-edge algorithm, which caters hyper-specific content to the user after a few “likes” are given to seconds-long videos.
Personally, I tended to like videos that pertained to my love of cooking. At the swipe of my fingers, I was presented with traditional recipes from across the globe to professional food science videos.
However, my fatal mistake while using the app was when I liked a video containing the hashtag #healthyeating.
Within an instant, TikTok’s algorithm reorganized my entire For You page. What once presented recipes with an array of ingredients now highlighted what was absent from the dishes.
Gluten-free. Diary-free. Vegetarian. Vegan.
And the worst label of all: healthy.
As I scrolled and "liked" these videos, I started to become more self-conscious about what I was eating. Because after immersing yourself in media that constantly reinforce these topics, how can you not think about it when eating your lunch?
An analysis of what it means to be "healthy"
Avoiding pork due to religious practices or eliminating dairy because of environmental concerns is not a harmful lifestyle practice.
What is harmful is labeling entire food groups as “unhealthy” within a video that lasts at most one minute.
Oftentimes, users of TikTok (just like you or me) will post a recipe and label the meal under the broad definition of “healthy,” leaving out any explanation of why the food is “good for you” or presenting any credible factual evidence.
The term “healthy” is simply so broad that one person could perceive the definition of the word as “low-calorie” while another defines it as “organic/non-GMO.”
Additionally, labeling entire food groups as “unhealthy” can unintentionally harm another person's food traditions or cultural roots. For example, my mother’s disappointment when I stated her Italian cooking was unhealthy.
As an incoming sophomore, I now understand the flaws within TikTok’s “FoodTok” videos. To this day, I deeply regret all the nights I turned down my mother’s dinners on the basis of “eating healthy.” However, my ability to now recognize the toxicity of dieting has not given me peace of mind.
As social media platforms become more accessible to younger audiences, I worry that young, impressionable minds will be warped by diet culture. That children too young to worry about their body weight or how many calories they’re consuming will lose vital adolescent years teaching themselves what a balanced diet is. That young adults will abandon cultural traditions to compensate for one social media influencer labeling pasta as “unhealthy.”
As we continue to push the boundaries of media, I urge all social media influencers to think before they label a food as unhealthy. Ask yourself if the content you’re producing is clear on why you believe certain ingredients should be avoided.
For me, healthy eating is not avoiding processed goods or turning down my mother’s carb-loaded meals. Healthy eating is food freedom and the appreciation for the ability to consume a balanced and history-rich diet.
Allie Sinkovich is an Online Writer for Rowdy Magazine. When she's not studying, she's either watching John Oliver or paddleboarding at the beach.