Clean Eating & Over Exercising: Is Instagram Bad for Our Health?

Open the Instagram app and chances are you’ll be bombarded with row upon row of glowing, toned women sporting branded gym wear, brightly coloured smoothie bowls and endless of variations of avocado on toast. At no previous time has it been as easy to access information on health, fitness and dieting than it currently is through the snappy infographics and vibrant plates of food that circulate Instagram; it’s almost impossible not to scroll through the app without falling across some beautiful young woman promoting her bespoke workout plan or posting updates of her daily diet.

What was once a photo sharing site has, for the majority of us - young women in particular - turned into a lifestyle promoting platform. The very modern concepts of ‘clean eating’ and HIIT training seem to be so deeply engrained in our society as positive lifestyle choices that actually differentiating between that which is scientifically sound and that which is potentially harmful is a daily struggle for many of us. If there is potentially unhelpful or even harmful information regarding health and fitness circulating on the app, perhaps we need to take a closer look at how we’re using this form of social media.

One of the primary issues with the health and fitness community on Instagram is its authenticity. Numerous qualified personal trainers and nutritionists, from fitness phenomenon Kayla Itsines to Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, use the app to circulate healthy recipe ideas and training plans – and there is no doubt that this information can be incredibly helpful and inspiring. When given the correct advice from a trained professional, users can develop an understanding of how to life a healthy lifestyle. However, even some of this should be taken with a pinch of salt.

One example is Kayla Itsines’ sensational Bikini Body Guide, a twelve-week workout plan that promises to shred fat and create tone reportedly used by ’25 million people around the world’ according to Kayla’s boyfriend and business partner Tobi Pearce. There is no doubt that people see results from the guide; a quick search of tag #bbgtransformation reveals nearly 200,000 before and after pics.

The problem with the Bikini Body Guide is that whilst Itsines is certainly a reputable personal trainer, she is not a qualified nutritionist. The BBG’s accompanying nutrition guide sometimes calls for days of eating a mere 1200 calories, far below the recommended 2000 to maintain weight, or 1500 to lose weight. When marketed as a scientifically supported guide allowing for rapid weight loss – something desired by so many young women – users may feel like failures if they can’t follow the information, leading to potentially detrimental consequences both on physical and mental health.

A further issue with Itsines’ guide is the community that surrounds it; there are countless Instagram accounts to track individual progress and post food images, and there is no doubting that this can be productive and useful. What is perhaps not so useful is the potential for comparison. It’s no secret that social media can be have harmful effects on self-esteem and body image as it provides a constant stream of a purported ‘ideal’ lifestyle or body shape and this is certainly true of the BBG community. Some users of the guide report becoming almost obsessive, comparing their weight loss to others and questioning their own progress. Surely this isn’t a healthy way to becoming fitter? When even the name of the guide itself suggests that prior to undertaking it, users are not ‘bikini body’ ready – when in fact a ‘bikini body’ is anyone’s body in a bikini – how can young women ever feel comfortable in their own bodies?

Aside from personal trainers, another community of Instagrammer has also come into the spotlight in recent years: that of the ‘clean eating’ blogger. Those such as Ella Woodward, or Deliciously Ella, and Madeline Shaw are fast becoming household names similar to that of celebrity chefs. Their endorsement of clean eating – that is, eating unrefined or processed foods as close to their natural form – has been the source of much debate. Indeed, it cannot be ignored that many recipes put out by said authors are healthy, nutritious and their general message is to promote a balanced diet. Where the issue arises is much the same as Instagram fitness communities – the feeling of self-doubt or failure when you binge on the occasional Twix and packet of Thai Sweet Chilli Sensations or can’t afford to have avocado on rye bread for breakfast every day, as many students can’t. The term ‘clean’ itself suggests that alternative diets are dirty, or impure. Being constantly bombarded with images of food we ‘should’ eat, when all you really want after a long day at university is a bowl of cheesy pasta, can be disheartening to say the least.

Clean eating, with its focus on nuts, legumes, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and unrefined grains, tends to promote a diet that is largely vegetarian and vegan. Certainly, a diet lacking meat can be incredibly healthy and sustainable – there are currently 3 million vegetarians in the UK – as well as less harmful to the environment, but when not fully understood, can lead to health issues. For example, if recent converts to clean eating do not recognise that their lessened protein intake from meat requires substitution from other foods, this could lead to nutrient deficiency. An obsession of any kind, particularly regarding something as prevalent in our daily lives as food, isn’t healthy, and this is perhaps where the majority of ‘clean eating’s issues arise.

It must be said that this is not a warning against all nutritional or fitness advice found on Instagram – much of it, including the Bikini Body Guide and aspects of clean eating, can be educational and enlightening. After all, these Instagrammers are all striving towards one thing: a healthy lifestyle full of regular exercise and delicious, balanced food, and that certainly isn’t a bad thing. As with most aspects of modern life, taking things in moderation and with a certain cautiousness can go a long way.  There is no one single lifestyle to suit all and it is crucial this is recognised.