Photo: Martin Poole/Getty Images
If your TikTok algorithm has caught wind of your resolutions like mine has, you’re probably seeing a For You Page filled with beautifully organized pantries, labeled storage tucked away neatly in refrigerators, upbeat “what I eat in a day” videos, and extravagant recipes to start the year on a healthy foot. It’s like having your own personal nutritionist, chef, and life coach in the palm of your hand. But do these videos really help people make healthy life changes?
Before anything else, it’s important for me to say that I am an avid TikTok user. And by that I mean, I don’t fall asleep at night unless I’ve spent a few hours scrolling through the app in bed either cackling to myself or gasping at life hacks I would have never thought of. And among these videos, I see a lot of health and lifestyle content. From videos on how to divide up your workouts during the week to how to get enough protein, TikTok has become a key platform I use for health and fitness tips. And while these types of videos are absolutely not unique to TikTok (I’ve been following Instagram health influencers ever since my teen years), the video-sharing app has transformed the way we consume lifestyle content.
Whether you’re trying to cut out high-calorie foods or add more veggies to your diet, there are TikTok influencers with perfectly-curated how-tos for your health journey, delivered in aesthetically pleasing clips. Accounts like @emilymariko, @happyhealthyhailey, and @_catben_ are famous for these. If you’ve ever watched a TikTok of ripened fruit, veggies, and organic ingredients being finely chopped and made into perfect healthy meals that match just the macros you need (all done within a kitchen that manages to remain perfectly clean the whole time), then you know exactly what I’m talking about. But it’s not just videos of healthy meals. Usually everything about these influencers comes perfectly packaged.
As with all social media, these healthy-eating videos are aspirational. But there are a few things that set them apart. While Instagram creates a clearly idealized version of reality, TikTok retains a sense of ordinariness. It’s not only influencers who go viral on the app— anyone can get TikTok famous. And unlike most unrealistically perfect content on Instagram, these healthy eating videos on TikTok are meant to be explicitly instructional. Recipes are advertised as easy or simple enough for “every day,” just the sort of thing to appeal to TikTok’s extremely young audience, who may be learning to cook for themselves for the first time. Then there’s the distinctive video format, which prioritizes quick cuts and heavy editing — just the sort of thing that leaves out all the ordinary steps in between pretty shots. It’s no wonder that when all’s said and done, you end up with a video that bears only a passing resemblance to real life.
These accounts are also some of the most popular on the app. Creator Emily Mariko has racked up 8.8 million followers with her ASMR recipe videos. The hashtag “healthy recipes” has been viewed on TikTok 4.3 billion times. Every day people are watching these videos and attempting to emulate them, with mixed results. Yannely Navarro says they give her ideas and mostly “influence me to purchase things.” The 25-year-old enjoys clear containers that help keep her pantry organized, and bought some to store loaves of bread after seeing it on the app. “Those TikToks are what I imagine cooking should feel like,” Ruby Ijaz tells me. “When I watch those videos it makes me feel like I should make time and do those tasks properly. But I don’t end up doing it … so I guess those TikToks are my wishes for what I should be doing.”
Take it from someone who has struggled with this journey for years. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve made goals to become healthier, stick with a nutritional plan, and become the type of person who feels as clean and perfectly packaged as the people in these videos. When my one-bedroom apartment in Newark didn’t look the way the kitchens on TikTok would look, I’d get frustrated. I tried to label things, repackage my produce into organized containers, and meal prep for my weeks because the people in the videos all had bodies and lifestyles that I wanted. I figured if I just followed suit, I could be just like them.
Of course, life gets in the way. With graduate school, a full-time job, and side gigs freelancing, I didn’t have time to prep for every meal in my life. My kitchen was messy all the time. Buying organic groceries every week got too expensive. These are all perfectly normal human things. But that didn’t stop me from feeling like a failure. When we consistently watch everyday people who are quite literally editing out all of the messy aspects of their lives, we make it that much harder for ourselves to feel like we’re on the right path. Eventually, I began to realize that scrolling through the pages of my favorite TikTok health gurus weren’t really making me feel inspired, they were making me feel overwhelmed by how far behind I was.
Does my realization of how detrimental these TikTok videos can be mean I’m done endless scrolling? Of course not. But rather than mentally beat myself up over the fact that my life doesn’t look like an edited TikTok video, I accept the reality that my health journey is whatever I make of it. If it doesn’t always look perfect, that’s okay. That’s why, splayed out in my messy kitchen, half-eaten homemade poke bowl in hand, I’ll still double-tap videos of Emily Mariko preparing an entire stuffed chicken without getting so much as a droplet on her perfect white counters.