Exactly 463 years ago, a balding, bearded, nearly-90-year-old Venetian nobleman kicked off one of the world’s most controversial TikTok trends. In 1558, Renaissance writer Luigi Cornaro published several tracts detailing how a strict diet could lead to a long life. “First, bread; then, bread soup or light broth with an egg,” reads a 1917 English translation of Cornaro’s The Art Of Living Long, “Of meats, I eat veal, kid and mutton; I eat fowls of all kinds.” Skip forward to today – the TikTok tag #WhatIEatInADay has accumulated over 6.9 billion views.
From Renaissance tracts to celebrity interviews to YouTube vlogs and TikTok clips: why are we so obsessed with what other people eat? While we are currently reassessing the toxic diet culture perpetuated in the media in the early 2000s, we are seemingly simultaneously using social media to perpetuate the same toxic ideals ourselves. Psychologists and dieticians have spoken out about the harm caused by “What I eat in a day” videos, many of which feature small quantities of food and mirror shots of slim bodies.
But is the story that simple? In recent months, TikTokers have gone viral by parodying restrictive “What I eat” videos, while others have used the tag to share their eating disorder recovery with the world. While the most viewed “What I eat in a day” video on YouTube is thumbnailed by a Victoria’s Secret model in a bikini, the current most viewed on TikTok is thumbnailed by a giant luminous cocktail and also features raclette, chips, pasta, and pizza.
What does the “What I eat in a day” trend really tell us about our attitudes to food and our bodies? Why does this type of content – in one format or another – continue to reoccur?
Where did this trend originate, and when will it end? Will it ever end?
When 47-year-old Emma, a journalist who requested that their last name be omitted, took a job with The Daily Express in 1999, she never imagined that she’d argue with a famous author about his fridge. Emma, who still works in the media, was in charge of a small column on the opening page of the newspaper’s Saturday magazine – in it, everyone from poets to politicians answered questions about food and revealed the contents of their fridge.
“It was a cosy, fun piece about people’s kitchens and cooking habits, not diets,” Emma explains. Every week, Emma would visit a celebrity’s house with a photographer and jot down everything inside their refrigerator. “Most of them were pretty true to life – there were a lot of half-filled ketchup bottles, old condiment jars, half a plate of last night’s casserole…” she says. There was very little controversy, except for when one “very famous author in his 70s” refused to let the photographer snap pictures of his fridge. “We ended up going back to my flat, taking a picture of my dodgy old fridge filled with food I bought specially from what I’d quickly managed to note down that he had.”
Over the coming decade, this type of content spread from magazine to magazine and an emphasis on diet content grew. From 2004 to 2014, Ally Oliver, a 54-year-old freelance editor, worked on tabloid magazine Closer’s “Fridge Raider” feature – like the Express, it featured a peek inside celebrity fridges. (Unlike the Express, Closer didn’t photograph celebrities' real fridges but instead recreated their contents in a studio after a short interview.)
“The problem was most people wanted to present the best versions of themselves,” Ally says. “It’s funny how many of them had kale, almond milk and carrots in the fridges.” While the Express feature didn’t focus on health, Closer editors asked a nutritionist to comment on each celebrity fridge. While Oliver believes this was a useful way to educate readers about nutrition, she also notes that one of Closer’s USPs back then was dieting content. “We were all about diet. It was a time when celeb diets were an obsession with the weekly mag-buying public, certainly within that 25-40 age group.”
Still, some celebrities were honest about their eating habits. “We loved it when some of them would say their fridge was full of Champagne or leftover pizza as this was a welcome break from the norm,” says Maddy Biddulph, a freelance journalist and founder of Giant Peach PR, who ran the Fridge Raider feature from 2011 to 2014. Maddy says because no one from Closer physically went to see the celebrities’ fridges, they simply had to assume they were being honest about their diets. “There may have been an element of wanting to present their best selves and impress teacher – the nutritionist.”
Both Ally and Maddy say Fridge Raider was, and remains, an extremely popular format (it runs in the magazine to this day, while features about celebrities’ daily diets have also run in The Guardian, Grazia, People, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Telegraph’s Stella magazine). Both women attribute this popularity to our desire to see “behind the curtain” of celebrity life as well as emulate their lifestyles and bodies. “In the early 2000s there was an explosion in reality TV which created this whole ‘famous people, they’re like me’ movement,” Ally says. “There was a dissolving of the line between celebs and their audience… If they could go on a diet and come out three months later having dropped five dress sizes then it [seemed] possible for the average person on the street.”
Around the same time Maddy was working at Closer, a new trend began burgeoning online. In 2011, early vegan vloggers first started documenting their daily diets, and by 2012, “What do you eat?” had become a popular question on forums. In the following years, bloggers and vloggers in the vegan, bodybuilding, and fitness communities created content specifically titled “What I eat in a day”, and in 2015, the format caught on among more mainstream lifestyle YouTubers. If reality TV stars were “just like us”, YouTube stars were us, making other people’s diets more accessible than ever.
While there were the first hints of a backlash to “What I eat” content in 2017, it largely continued to thrive unabated. The top ten “What I eat in a day” videos on YouTube currently have a combined 73.3 million views.
But much like celebrities in glossy magazine features, YouTube’s early “What I eat”-ers were not always completely honest about their diets, likely because of the trend’s origins in the wellness community. Talia Maizels is a 22-year-old from Essex who has been creating YouTube content for almost four years. When she started making “What I eat in a day” videos two to three years ago, she would sometimes avoid recording the unhealthy snacks she ate. “I feel like I kind of built up this, like, healthy image for myself, so then you don’t want to go against that,” she explains now.
Towards the end of 2019, Maizels saw other YouTubers reacting to their old “What I eat” videos and decided to jump on the trend. When she sat down to watch one of her old vlogs she was horrified and immediately switched the video to “private”, meaning it can no longer be accessed by her 93,000 followers or anyone else on the site.
“I was literally eating lettuce wraps instead of wraps… I was contributing to the whole diet culture thing – I was eating low carbs,” she says. “Without realizing it at the time, I was in a bad headspace in regards to food and weight. It’s only when you look back a few years later that you’re like, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s really not good.’”
Though Talia still makes “What I eat in a day” videos, she has stopped thumbnailing them with pictures of her body, and has condemned her old content. “I don’t want to be a negative influence on anyone,” she says. “On social media you can just get sucked in and come out feeling really bad about yourself.”
Eating disorder experts have spoken out about the damage “What I eat” videos can cause. Speaking with Healthline in February, psychologist Alison Chase, regional clinical director of America’s specialist Eating Recovery Center, said these videos, “can set the viewer up for unrealistic expectations and lead to disordered behaviours.” TikTok has now added a disclaimer to the #WhatIEatInADay tag. “If you or someone you know are experiencing concerns around body image, food, or exercise — it’s important that you know help is out there,” it reads before linking to eating disorder charity Beat.
While some millennials assume that we lived in a uniquely bad era of diet culture – when “heroin chic” was in and celebrities were routinely fat-shamed by the press – in actual fact, 2020 research from UCL found that Generation Z are more concerned with weight loss than previous generations. The longitudinal study of 22,503 adolescents found that over 42% of teens were attempting to lose weight in 2015 while only 28.6% were in 2005. “Reducing the prevalence of restrictive eating behaviours and weight dissatisfaction should be considered an important public health priority,” the academics concluded.
Superficially, it makes sense. While teens reading magazines in 2005 might have compared themselves to celebrities with unrealistic diets and edited bodies, teens today can compare themselves to ordinary people with unrealistic diets and edited bodies. Alongside “What I eat” videos, over 160 million people globally have now downloaded the body-altering app Facetune, which allows anyone and everyone to perpetuate harmful body ideals.
It’s understandable, then, that many online have begun resisting this messaging. In the last couple of years, young creators have begun making “What I eat” content that is deliberately anti-diet and promotes non-restrictive eating habits.
“I had always wanted to film one because I had never seen anyone post a ‘What I eat in a day’ that was similar to the way I ate,” Grace explains, “I think at that point the only [ones] on YouTube all featured A LOT of kale, salads and porridge.” Booth says that everyone she knew in real life ate like she did – a balanced mix of fruit, veg, sandwiches, crisps, and cakes – but this type of diet was nowhere to be found online. Even though Grace has never struggled with her relationship with food, she says watching other people’s “What I eat” videos made her second guess herself.
“I think it can be hugely detrimental,” she says. “I think of all the young impressionable teens who are seeing some content and thinking, ‘Is that what I should do?’, so would love if my videos helped just one person realize that not everyone eats the same… I want to show that food is there to be enjoyed.”
As well as her 426,000 YouTube subscribers, Grace has 155,000 followers on TikTok who also enjoy her “What I eat” content. Last year, an audio clip went viral on the site – in it, one creator narrates their healthy daily diet in an immaculate voice: “Started the day with warm lemon water. Granola with oat milk and cashew butter for breakfast…” Almost immediately, people began contrasting the audio with videos and pictures of their sugary snacks.
Over the few years, content creators have shown that “What I eat” content doesn’t have to be negative or harmful – Grace believes these videos can help people get recipe inspiration, with some videos feeling “like you’re sitting having dinner with a friend.” Deborah Lupton, a sociology professor at the University of New South Wales and editor of Digital Food Cultures, says platforms like YouTube and TikTok can “promote culinary diversity” and “provide inspiration and advice” for people seeking to eat healthier. Deborah says content about eating disorder recovery can be “helpful and supportive” for people with similar experiences.
But that is not to say “What I eat” content is now harmless – alongside uplifting stories of eating disorder recovery and unabashed clips tagged “What I eat in a day as a fat person”, are restrictive diets, ribcages, and calorie-counting. “If something is having a negative impact on you, try and stop interacting with the content, put your phone down, watch something you do enjoy,” Grace advises. She hopes the culture around this content can change, too.
“I just want people to be 100% honest and transparent when sharing food content, because I know some influencers which definitely do not eat the way they show in their videos,” she says. “They aren’t just having carrots and hummus for lunch and no snacks!”
Despite increased coverage, “What I eat” content is age-old – it’s just that TikTok’s meteoric rise means it’s now harder to ignore. “It’s not new,” says Louise Foxcroft, a Cambridge-educated historian and author of Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years. Louise explains how Romantic poet Lord Byron followed a strict diet in the early 1800s, eating squashed potatoes drenched in vinegar and regularly weighing himself at a wine merchants in London. “A lot of Victorian physicians were quite worried about his influence on the young,” she says. “Lord Byron was arguably the first celebrity dieter.”
Louise is candid when asked about restrictive “What I eat” content: “It’s exactly the same sort of humiliation and misery and competitive behaviour and aspiring to be an ideal that the whole diet industry has been manipulating for at least 150 years or more now.”
Luigi Cornaro’s The Art Of Living Long is still in print (and indeed currently available on Amazon for £6.95). It’s likely that basic human psychology explains our obsession with what others eat: we’re a nosy, competitive, aspirational and often bored bunch. We can only hope that the internet continues to democratize the diets on display. “I personally enjoy making [“What I eat” videos] as long as they’re not restrictive ones. I enjoy watching them if they’re not restrictive ones,” YouTuber Talia Maizels says. After nearly 500 years of daily diet content, it’s safe to say these videos aren’t going away any time soon.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre hotline at 1-866-633-4220.