The young woman in the ad is attractive in the way that most young women on TikTok are: She’s slim yet curvy, with ombre hair that gently waterfalls down her back, and a yard-wide grin. She points to the text that pops onscreen: “People always ask me how do you … keep your weight? Eat so well so easily? Have such great skin? And it’s so easy … intermittent fasting!” Fastic, an intermittent-fasting app, then pops up onscreen.
Intermittent fasting is a dietary fad that has gained traction in recent years, in part thanks to plugs from Silicon Valley powerhouses such as Jack Dorsey and celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian. (Even former porn star Jenna Jameson has gone viral on women’s-health websites for her “body transformation” she credits to intermittent fasting.) The definition of the term varies, but essentially it requires people to abstain from eating for a circumscribed period during the day — sometimes, as much as 24 hours — and then eating a regular meal after that period ends. Other methods involve eating normally for five days of the week, but then restricting caloric intake to as few as 500 calories for two days of the week.
Like many dietary trends, intermittent fasting is often coated in the patina of general health-and-wellness jargon to make it seem more palatable. “It’d become this code word like ‘health’ and ‘cleanse,’ which is a disguise for ‘diet,'” says Michele Kabas, a certified eating-disorder specialist. There is some evidence that it may yield some health benefits, such as reducing insulin resistance and cholesterol levels, when under the care of a doctor or dietician, says integrative dietician Blair Silverman. But for the most part, it is used for weight loss, which is highly problematic given how restrictive it is and “can very likely lead someone down the road of disordered eating and/or an eating disorder.”
Indeed, intermittent fasting has become popular among those who are already prone to disordered-eating habits, says Nicole Naggar, a psychiatrist in New York City, who says it tends to attract those who struggle with bulimia or binge eating in particular. “These folks often feel their eating becomes out of control. [To them], the intermittent fasting feels a) like a formulaic way to weight loss, and b) it’s structured and it gives them clear-cut guidelines of when they can and should be eating and when they can and shouldn’t be. That makes them feel more in control.”
The popularity of intermittent-fasting ads has not gone unnoticed by many TikTok users. “What’s with all the intermittent fasting ads on tiktok? Bit fucking weird for that to be advertised to loads of children innit?” one person wrote on Twitter earlier this month‚ while another wrote, “Find it concerning the amount of ads i see for intermittent fasting on TikTok which is mainly used by teens … like i kno there’s benefits to IF but it can also lead to a slippery slope of restriction.” Others in recovery for eating disorders have specifically complained that such content puts them at increased risk of relapse.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Fastic co-founder Phil Wayman says that Fastic’s TikTok ads specifically target female users between the ages of 25 and 55. Wayman conceded that Fastic’s ads promoted weight loss as a side effect of intermittent fasting, then added, “We are not for dieting. We are against diets. Fasting for us is more of a lifestyle.” When asked why the ads featured young, thin models, he said, “You mean, I should put an overweight model there? I don’t follow you.… All of our models are not thin. They are healthy.”
In the United States, approximately 30 million people have suffered from eating disorders at some point in their lives, says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). The majority of those diagnosed are young women. (Some estimates suggest that as many as 25 percent of sufferers are male, though they are diagnosed far less frequently due to cultural stigmas associated with eating disorders.) Of all mental-health disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate with arguably the most arduous recovery process: An estimated five to 10 percent of people with anorexia nervosa, for instance, will die within 10 years of onset of symptoms, while only 30 to 40 percent of people will ever recover.
Mysko says that she has been increasingly hearing complaints from those in the eating-disorder recovery community that TikTok is promoting diet ads. “It’s concerning for anyone to be seeing these ads constantly,” she says. “But certainly it’s more concerning for such ads to be targeted at anyone who is searching for content promoting restriction, when they might be at risk.” She says NEDA has reached out to TikTok to express such concerns but has not heard back.
TikTok is not the only platform to be accused of promoting unhealthy body image and disordered-eating habits: Instagram, with its emphasis on vividly hued quinoa-bowl photos and #fitspo bikini selfies, has also garnered much flak for fostering toxic environments for young people struggling with disordered eating, including running ads for “detox” teas, waist trainers, or appetite-suppressing lollipops. But given the explosive growth of TikTok, as well as its young, female-skewing audience, the platform has recently garnered intense criticism for prioritizing content that features young, thin, white female creators, which critics say perpetuates unrealistic body-image standards. Furthermore, its algorithm recommends content that users have previously engaged with, ostensibly creating a self-perpetuating feedback loop for those who engage with content related to fitness or dietary habits (such as the #whatIeatinaday hashtag, which has 2.8 billion views). Much of this content features very young-looking girls touting their own weight-loss tips.
Troublingly, one doesn’t even have to interact with much of this content to be served diet-oriented content on TikTok’s For You page. “On any app with a huge demographic of teenage girls, you’ll see a ton of thinspo content — ‘what I eat in a day’ stuff, diet hacks, workout tips, etc.,” says Rebecca Jennings, a reporter who covers TikTok culture for Vox. “I never consciously favorited any of this stuff, and yet it shows up on my feed all the time because TikTok knows I’m a twentysomething woman. It’s like those Instagram bra ads — you never actively signed up to see them, but it’s impossible to ignore it.”
In its community guidelines, TikTok specifically restricts “content that supports pro-ana [pro-anorexia] or other dangerous behavior to lose weight.” But content that falls outside that box — that falls in the gray area of supporting unhealthy weight-loss methods or restrictive-eating patterns, even if it doesn’t overtly promote eating disorders — seems to get a pass. The hashtag #intermittentfasting, for instance, has about 97.8 million views, with one top video promising to show TikTok users “how I lost 20 pounds with intermittent fasting” garnering 1.1 million views. In another video, a very thin, chipper young woman with a high ponytail dances to KingMostWanted with the text “I’m on a 24-hour fast today! And I feel SO GOOD!!”
Such content can lead some users to believe that restricting food to such an extreme degree is not just an effective weight-loss method, but a healthy, socially permissible one as well. “There’s a very vulnerable audience out there who is not likely to be vetting the information that they’re getting,” Naggar explains. “They may glom on to this, and it may start to feed into disordered ways of relating to feeding oneself and relating to one’s body.”
In terms of curbing such content, TikTok could create specific guidelines preventing advertisers from using its platform to promote products like fasting apps and waist trainers, as Instagram and Facebook did last year under NEDA’s advisement. Users under 18 should certainly not be served such ads, according to Mysko. “It’s tricky to make a ban of any type of diet content across any platform,” she says. “But you have to think of which users are at risk.”
TikTok could also use its educational tools to create a disclaimer or a media literacy campaign to help young users identify content that may be triggering, just as it has recently spearheaded an anti-disinformation campaign, says Jennings. Yet, to an extent, because it’s such an image-driven platform, there’s only so much it can do to remove all potentially toxic body-image content. “It’s never going to be a space free from triggering body-image stuff for users,” she says.