Instagram thinks I’m a vegan.
On my Instagram Explore page, there’s always a suggested photo or video of some cool, exotic, vegan food. I’m actually not a vegan, nor a vegetarian. I’m just intrigued by the interesting and creative dishes that happen to be prepared without animal products. Veganism is just one trend on the rise that has been fueled by social media. For example, while only 2% of shoppers have celiac disease, why is the gluten free market growing so quickly? Why do people love sharing beautifully manicured photos of fresh produce while hashtagging #cleaneating? Why are people voluntarily forsaking solid food for juice cleanses? These food and diet fads have surprising staying power thanks to social media.
I noticed 4 clear patterns across eating and diet trends. For each, social media has:
- Increased visibility of information and general awareness about the benefits of the diet
- Made the trends seem more accessible by offering recipes and inspiration
- Enabled the formation of communities, united by their food lifestyle
- Contributed to the spread of misinformation related to these health trends
Have you heard of the Omnivore’s Dilemma? It’s the idea that because we as humans can technically survive on almost anything, there’s no dictated diet for us to follow. Because of this, culture and societal norms shape our eating behavior. With the sheer availability of information over the internet, consumers are becoming more conscious about what we eat. We form opinions on GMOs, trade practices, sustainable packaging, and the presence of fats and sugars. We crave authenticity—we want to know what’s in our food and who made it. With more information, people are better able to tailor their diets to their values. 2/3 of us are eating a greater variety of food than we did a mere 5 years ago.
Food movements are taking advantage of this desire for information. PETA published an article claiming they are the most engaged-with advocacy group on social media. They post storytelling videos about animal cruelty on Facebook, encourage veganism by responding to consumer tweets, and post recipe videos on YouTube to showcase the incredible possibilities of vegan food.
Celebrities going vegan or gluten free put a face to the movement. Bloggers espouse new dieting techniques. As scientific studies are published, past notions are tossed down the drain. A few years ago, fat was vilified as the cause of weight gain. Nutritionists finally got the word out about the existence of good fats. Now, the blame for weight gain falls on a new target: gluten. Articles convince consumers that gluten-free products are generally healthier.
And it works. People listen. The more the message is reinforced, the more likely people are to become convinced and change their routine. For example, partially thanks to social media, veganism has grown 360% in the past decade.
But eating clean is so difficult!
Not anymore. Once consumers are aware of the health benefits of switching diets, social media makes it seem more accessible. The trick is that millennials don’t like extreme fads or strict dieting. They want to continue to enjoy the foods they love. The pure concept of eliminating all animal products, gluten, processed food, or solid food from your diet sounds extreme. Who would want to do that? You’d have to change your entire lifestyle.
That’s where social media comes in. Veganism doesn’t seem that hard when you see creative and easy recipes for vegan meatballs or vegan empanadas all over social media. In fact, some of the exotic produce like jackfruits seem positively delicious. Juicing doesn’t seem difficult when you see tasty looking purple drinks in mason jars, promoted by smiling, fit influencers. If they could whip up delicious juices with just a couple ingredients and maintain that figure, why can’t I? Social media shows you that you really can eat your favorite foods, maintain your current lifestyle, and eat in line with your personal values and morals.
Upon noticing these trends, supermarkets and brands fill the void between social media and reality. By offering more trendy products, customers are able to live out the idealistic world they see on social media. Coke bought Odwalla and Pepsi bought Naked Juice. Gluten-free products are now staples in supermarkets. And it’s profitable, too—38% of Gen Z and 32% of millennials are willing to pay a higher price for gluten free products.
But it’s not fun when I’m the only gluten-free friend.
Social media fosters an eating community. People bond over similar values—and shared food values translate into strong loyalty and community. These communities post inspiring or provocative content to please their followers and convert new people to their lifestyle. #vegan, #plantbased, and #cleaneating all create communities of other people eating like you. Interestingly, the main predictor of whether someone continues a vegan lifestyle is whether or not they have a strong social media presence.
You love to post pictures of a fresh-pressed juice with an essentialist design, or an authentic-looking artisanal product with a vintage package. With these pictures, you earn social kudos for being healthy, ethical, or environmentally friendly. Food culture communities also foster a sense of socioeconomic class and social credibility. That polished photo of a green smoothie signifies not only that you have money, but you spend it on the “right” stuff. You can afford to drop a little extra money on Organic food or vegan treats, and it’s clear to your followers that you’re treating your body “right.”
Brands play off this theory by positioning their products off the sense of community. It’s all about the buyer persona. Juicing becomes an appealing part of everyday life when you see it alongside lifestyle aspects you know and value—such as a photo of juice, lip gloss, and a nice timepiece watch.
Wait, so that blog I read about a 30-day juice cleanse was factually incorrect?
Maybe. Social media does have its downsides. Certified nutritionists are struggling to combat rumors spread by unqualified influencers. A certain diet may work anecdotally for that blogger, but it may not be scientifically sound. Social media can also conflate the benefits of a certain trend. For example, whole grain wheat is scientifically good for you, but a gluten-free diet proclaims you must cut it out. Juicing can be dangerous if you don’t receive the right nutrients, but social media espouses the detoxifying health benefits.
Even worse, the clean eating trend is sparking a disorder some nutritionists are calling “Orthoexia nervosa,” a fixation on healthy eating. There is not yet a clinical diagnosis for this, so there are no official numbers on people who have suffered from orthoexia. Nutritionists see this condition start out innocently—as an attempt to simply eat healthier food. But for certain people, particularly female teenagers, a disposition for obsession can take it a step too far. People become fixated on eating clean, and thus develop unhealthy eating habits. This can be perpetuated by social media influencers who may suffer from undiagnosed eating disorders themselves. They market and promote their potentially unhealthy eating habits. Social media normalizes beautiful photos of fresh produce that are lacking in nutrients such as protein or calcium—crucial to a balanced diet.
Food movements such as veganism and the gluten-free industry have greatly benefitted from promoting their lifestyles on social media. Once consumers have information about the diet and inspiration on how to pull it off, they’re ready to become a part of the community. Make sure to always keep an eye on yourself to make sure trendy diets don’t become unhealthy.
Are you gluten-free, vegan, or a loyal juicer? How did social media influence your journey? Let me know in the comments!