The ‘Heal Your Gut’ Mantra Is Toxic

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
“Here’s how I got rid of my bloating and healed my gut.”
This is a characteristic introduction to #healyourgut TikTok, a corner of the internet that claims it can heal your gut and improve your life. Although the hashtag exists on other platforms, you’re more likely to see videos under the hashtag on TikTok because of the platform’s algorithm which shows you videos from different topics and trends. At the time of writing, #healyourgut and #guthealth have 27.7 million views and 1.5 billion views on TikTok, respectively.  
One of the biggest avenues of self improvement right now, particularly in ‘wellness’ circles, is in gut health. If you haven’t seen these videos, they often start off by listing symptoms such as bad skin, fatigue etc. Followed by asking if you would like to heal your gut, and then suggesting a plethora of lifestyle and diet changes that could help you do that.
If you have a gut problem yourself, it’s likely the videos under the #healyourgut tag are unavoidable. I certainly have found them to be as a recently diagnosed coeliac. Liking a funny video about bowel habits can land you on a very different side of TikTok as the algorithm picks up on the smallest insights into who you are. Like anything online, the videos range in quality. They can be informative and extremely useful if you are looking for advice or just someone to relate to. But despite some of the video content being useful, I have found that the more of these videos I watch, the more I question my prescribed gluten-free diet. I find myself wondering whether I should be taking supplements or even questioning if my gut can be ‘healed’ faster.
While gut health is extremely important, medically ‘healing’ isn’t necessarily used in medical contexts when discussing gut issues. It does happen sometimes, when there is intestinal damage that is reversible by treatment. For example, in cases like mine (coeliac disease), sticking to a gluten-free diet reverses intestinal damage that occurred before a diagnosis. However, with conditions like IBS and Crohn's it’s not as straightforward. Nonetheless, videos on TikTok push the idea that we all, knowingly or unknowingly, have a damaged gut that can be healed. When in fact, the only other time healing really makes sense is when dealing with parasitic infections, in which case you should go to a doctor rather than follow a TikToker’s advice.
Primarily, the videos under the hashtag target women and girls who are worried about their gut health, with health anxiety being a big theme that continuously crops up in the comments section. But it’s concerning that many of the videos specifically target those who mistrust healthcare professionals, particularly after a bad experience in which they weren't believed by their doctors.
Despite her diagnosis, Sameerah* received little support from her doctors on how to practically manage her IBS. Instead she ended up researching online. Even without looking for advice online, she believes the algorithm has shown her a lot of advice from nutritionists but found it “difficult to be able to determine what’s good for your own body.” Instead believing that the videos give no context or nuance, saying “there’s no way of knowing what your current gut health is like” and that she doesn’t know whether the supplements being promoted are actually good or if it’s just another trend. 
With the main question under many of these videos being “how do I know I need to heal my gut?”, the wording of the video responses can feel sinister. Many creators say that bloating, craving carbs, bad skin, inflammation and fatigue are all signs of a damaged gut. These symptoms are not only very general but can also be normal depending on your body and lifestyle. Pathologising food cravings and bad skin and the implication that these are symptoms of a damaged gut that needs healing is strange. What is the end goal for the creator if they are capitalising off people with health anxieties who feel like nobody is taking their health concerns seriously? Despite doubts about medical professionals, Kirsten Jackson, a Consultant Dietician and Gut Heath Specialist told R29 that anyone worried about their gut health should see a doctor before they change anything in their diet.
The videos on TikTok are very similar in tone to cleansing and detoxing trends that are still around, although they reached peak in the 2010s. Even though they are not the same, taking time to heal your gut often involves the same ideas as cleansing or detoxing your body. Body cleanses and detoxes often consist of cutting out most food (think: juice cleanses). Similarly “tak[ing] time to heal your gut” is a similar concept in which video creators encourage people to stop eating most foods then slowly reintroduce them back into your diet to “figure out what foods make you bloat”. Despite the difference in language, the end goal of these trends seems to always come back to a healed gut being equated to a flatter stomach, which is often talked about as ‘reduced bloating’ on TikTok. Sameerah also noticed this. She says that “one video I saw spoke about the ‘four steps of healing your gut’ which starts with cutting everything ‘bad’ out and cleansing your gut. There was no explanation of how to go about cutting foods out of your diet, the subtext was that you don’t eat much to give your gut time to ‘heal’ which is not practical advice and promotes unhealthy/disordered eating.”
Recently, the language of detoxing and cleansing has become less popular as more people are critiquing the way these trends encourage dangerous dieting. The harm caused by trends and products such as the ‘flat tummy teas’ promoted by influencers was far-reaching. Although ‘flat tummy teas’ are not promoted as much today, many influencers and content creators are still encouraging their followers to follow restrictive diets under the guise of healing and improving general health.
TikTok as a platform strives off of the perceived authenticity and relatability of their content creators and users. Naturally, the audience are drawn to more ‘real’ content that focuses on self-improvement rather than aesthetics of dieting and cleansing/detoxing. However, diet culture is pervasive and TikTok, like other social media platforms, is rife with content that promotes extreme dieting and disordered eating. Unlike other apps, creators on TikTok are careful not to use language associated with diet culture, instead they opt for ‘healing’ and ‘reducing bloating and inflammation’. The language used has been criticised by Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs who told R29 that “we're concerned that the #healyourgut trend on TikTok is harmful for those affected by eating disorders. Many #healyourgut videos encourage their followers to avoid entire food groups, carry out a 'detox', or go into lots of detail about the ingredients in food. The trend also equates food with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral connotations, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame for somebody with an eating disorder and encourage harmful behaviours.”
The #healyourgut videos also hide behind scientifically proven health advice and it can be difficult to identify what is factual information. Similar to cleansing and detoxing advice posts, many creators describe themselves as nutritionists or holistic doctors, so viewers might think that the creators are qualified to give out health advice. However, Kirsten, added: “You need to check who is the information being provided by. In the case of a registered dietitian, their registration means they have to only provide advice based on scientific proof. Sadly the term nutritionist and even doctor is not protected.”
This is not to say that all videos under the hashtag are bad or give medically inaccurate advice. Many people find useful information online and on social media. Zahra, who manages her IBS by relying on her own research, said she’s always interested to see how other people in her situation manage their IBS. However, she also said she’s not sure TikTok is the right platform for health advice but “[it] could possibly work better as a bridge to websites or more comprehensive resources about gut health.”
This is exactly the issue with social media platforms like TikTok where anyone can post health advice to their followers, and why it is important for us, as users, to be careful about taking advice from people online. It is worth checking the creators’ profiles to see if they are a registered dietician or healthcare professional who is qualified to give advice. If you are worried about your gut health, make sure to see your doctor who can test for common conditions and food intolerances. Cutting food out of your diet without medical advice is not recommended. 
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