Yes, you read that right – health trolling. Believe it or not, it’s a thing; it’s prominent as hell and is a serious problem. So, first off, let’s clarify what “health trolling” is: unsolicited comments on someone else’s body in the name of concern for their health and well-being, or in other words, shaming someone for being “unhealthy.”
More times than not, these comments are usually made in response to the appearance of someone’s body or their eating behavior. Health trolling may sound like, “You’re really gonna eat that junk?” or “You know that stuff isn’t good for you,” or “You probably should lose some weight, it’s unhealthy to be your size,” or, “Eat more protein! You’re skin and bones.” On social media, health trolling may look like comments such as, “Your promoting obesity.” The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.
Essentially, health trolling is a way for people to justify fat-shaming or shaming someone for being extremely thin. This really makes sense to a lot of people; they genuinely believe that they are educating others on the “dangers” of their behavior or size. Yet, the problem with this is that they themselves are not educated on health. Many health trollers are victims of the narrative that has been promoted by the diet & fitness industry – health equals physique –despite the host of scientific literature that conveys otherwise.
What is most ironic, is that weight discrimination and fat-shaming are positively correlated with a host of effects that negatively impact health & well-being (e.g. emotional eating, reduced motivation to exercise, and mental illness). One study found that blame-framing of a physician when discussing weight with obese patients led to an increase in the willingness of the patients to consume unhealthy foods and alcohol. Another found that perception of weight discrimination was associated with a higher likelihood of staying obese.
Furthermore, framing foods as “unhealthy” or “junk” or “bad” poses issues in and of itself. Yes, there are foods that are more nutritionally dense than others, but the extreme demonization of foods such as processed or animal products is contributing to the narrative that food has moral value. In popular culture, “unhealthy” is often not used to describe non-nutritionally dense foods, but rather, foods that are seen as “fattening.” This sets up individuals for relying on external rules to guide their food intake (which is associated with more guilt, stress, anxiety, and out-of-control feelings around food), rather than on internal cues (which has been shown to yield a more diverse, nutritionally fulfilling diet and a more positive relationship with body and food).
On the other hand, health trolling someone for their body size perpetuates the notion that our size is indicative of our health. To clarify something: there is not a single disease in existence that solely affects extremely thin or extremely large people. Yes, there are cases in which an individuals’ extreme size (whether large or small) is a depiction of an eating disorder or disordered behavior, but the assumption that someone’s body size represents their food intake and movement behaviors is extremely misleading. It is this very assumption that contributes to the development of eating disorders. Overall, health trolling contributes to the belief that we have full control of our body size via our food and movement habits, which is simply not true. Our genetics, our environment, and certain conditions are included in the host of factors that influence our size and beyond our control.
Health cannot be seen by the human eye. Whether someone is healthy or not cannot be concluded by a small snippet of their food intake. One of the healthiest things someone can do is nurture a positive relationship with food and their body and health trolling inhibit this ability. When an individual practices intuitive eating and mindful movement, their size will fall where it’s meant to be, as outlined in set point theory. And where someone’s weight settles varies vastly across individuals, and will still fluctuate (because that’s completely normal in the ever-changing environment called life!). So instead of educating people on the “dangers” of being small or large, why don’t we start a dialogue on what we can do to nurture a positive relationship with food and our bodies? It is this relationship that is so much more indicative of our health and well-being and completely separate from appearance.
But also, no one owes their health to anyone and health is an extremely personal thing – what may make you feel strong and healthy may be different for someone else, and many people may not have the privilege that is health that you do. All of this is valuable to keep in mind when making assumptions on how “healthy” someone is. Thus, to all the health trollers, thanks for the concern, but you’re a health risk.