Friday 22 March 2019

The rise of the Instagram health blogger

Bloggers are now more influential than celebrities when it comes to #fitspiration, but are these online mantras that are shared, liked, and followed, sending the right message to our teens?

Health blogs have become increasingly influential
Health blogs have become increasingly influential
Aoife Duffy had an eating disorder in her teens

Aoife Stuart-Madge

According to new research from Flinders University in Australia, fitness bloggers are now overtaking celebrities as role models for teenage girls.

A study of 13-17-year-old girls found that their main role models were women who ran online 'fitspo' pages. Popular Instagram handles that denote health, strength and fitness regularly post fitness mantras and detail their gruelling workout regimes and healthy recipes online in the name of 'fitspiration' or 'fitspo', and the study suggests that teenage girls are increasingly looking to them as role models, over celebrities.

However, while this new wave of fitness bloggers are inspiring the next generation of young women, their influence might not always be a positive one, as the research also found that many of the girls interviewed felt 'bad' about their body as a result of these blogs.

Harriette Lynch, consultant dietitian at the Lois Bridges Treatment Centre, says this could be because teenagers don't always have the ability to critically appraise written content in the same way that adults can and, therefore, can be more susceptible to misinterpreting the information.

Many teenagers also tend to lack basic body confidence which can cause them to hero-worship these seemingly 'perfect' bloggers and fitness models.

"Our clients from this demographic have reported that some blogs can make them feel inferior and, in turn, lower their self-confidence, while other blogs have been able to inspire them and assisted in making more healthful decisions.

"I would suggest that the qualifications and experience of the person writing the blog, and their motives and potential agendas are important factors as to whether they exert positive or negative influence on the young reader," says Harriette.

Worryingly, many of the most popular fitness bloggers favoured by teenagers have no formal fitness or nutritional training, yet some advocate a diet which cuts out large food groups, such as meat, dairy or carbs - which can be particularly damaging to growing bodies.

"In our clinic, we often see the damaging results of people offering advice through blogs who are not qualified to do so, with serious clinical conditions such as osteoporosis, nutritional deficiencies, muscle wastage and joint damage, to name a few, arising from ingrained misinformation. It's important for teenagers to remember that everybody is different and everyone will have their own specific nutritional and exercise requirements, and as a consequence, generalised advice is often inadequate. One size does not fit all."

According to a recent poll by the London School of Economics and Political Science, Ireland has the second highest rate of anorexia in Europe with a staggering three in every 200 teenagers and young girls aged 15-34 affected by the disease, while over a third of girls (35.9pc) admitted to worrying about their weight.

Eating disorder organisations have also noted a marked rise in cases of orthorexia - defined as a fixation on righteous eating - among teenagers and young women.

"Orthorexia is a compulsion to eating foods deemed biologically correct, sometimes described as a compulsion to eat a healthy diet. It can present as vegetarianism, veganism, avoiding dairy or omission of complete food groups from the diet such as carbohydrates," explains Harriette. "Sufferers get an extreme emotional reaction if dietary rules are broken. The behaviours masquerade as a quest for health while it is, in some people, a proxy for weight loss and its presence interferes with recovery from an eating disorder."

If you are worried this sounds like your own teenager, there are signs to look for.

"Symptoms may include the individual constantly worrying about food quality, an individual having a preoccupation with 'health' foods; they feel guilty or self loath when they stray from the diet; they feel in control when they are on the diet; they tend to talk about healthy eating with a 'badge of honour'; they place themselves on a nutritional pedestal and they wonder how others can possibly eat other food. Food is a constant obsession," says Harriette.

While the cause of many eating disorders is multi-layered, many fitness blogs feature an obsession with what and how much to eat, along with advice on dealing with 'slip-ups', which can contribute to bad body image and disordered eating, particularly in susceptible teens, says Harriette.

"An eating disorder evolves in a person against a background of factors in the personality, and the personal history that renders that person vulnerable to coping through abuse of food. If a person has low self-esteem, then such blogs may exacerbate existing problems.

"Some clients have suggested that fitness blogs sometimes make them feel 'bad' about themselves, recognising what the person has achieved on the blog as unattainable, but yet attempting to comply to a particular regime that ultimately results in failure and lower self-confidence. The affect of a blog on a person will inevitably depend on the mindset of that person."

Aoife Kelly, pictured right, now 20, a tourism management student at DIT, knows only too well the devastating impact online fitness blogs can have. She developed an eating disorder in her teens after getting addicted to health and fitness internet blogs.

"It started out as a health-kick. I was 16 and had just moved schools. I felt alienated at my new school as all the other girls were really fit and sporty," says Aoife. "I wasn't overweight, but I wanted to be sportier and healthier to fit in."

Unsure where to start, Aoife turned to the internet for advice and soon stumbled across the wealth of fitness blogs and Instagram feeds advocating intense workout regimes and extreme diet plans under the hashtag 'fitspiration'.

"I started by just cutting out junk food like chocolate and crisps and exercising more, but as I started to lose weight, I was encouraged to keep going," she says.

Inspired by the no-carb, no-diary and no-meat philosophy of some of her favourite bloggers, Aoife began to cut out huge food groups. "A lot of the advice I was reading on the internet said that carbs were bad, so I stopped eating bread and pasta, then I cut out dairy as I read it was fattening. Eventually I stopped eating meat," says Aoife.

Soon, she was surviving on less than 500 calories a day and was militant about what she was putting in her body. "I would only eat food that I thought was 'healthy' and would scour the packaging of labels to check for the fat and calorie count. It became something I couldn't stop."

To cover up her behaviour, she'd tell her parents that she'd had dinner at school or at a friend's house to avoid family meal times. "I'd tell my mum I was getting the bus to school, but in reality, I was walking the 40 minutes there and back every day.

"Then I'd offer to walk the dog in the evening so I could sneak in another 30-minute walk. With every step, I knew I was losing more weight, and if I ate something, I'd have to walk more."

Aoife admits she found validation for her obsessive behaviour by visiting health and fitness blogs which offered advice for 'slip ups' and gave #fitspiration mantras like 'Sweat is your body crying fat'. "I got into the habit of going online every day and it became addictive."

In a matter of months of going online, Aoife had lost three stone from her normal-size frame and was dangerously underweight.

"Physically, I started losing my hair, my skin was dry and my periods stopped. I looked and felt exhausted. It became obvious that something was wrong," says Aoife.

After her GP referred her to a dietitian, Aoife had to unlearn all the negative behaviour she had picked up from health bloggers.

"My dietitian explained that just because something has calories doesn't mean it is bad for you, and that carbs are not evil. She convinced me it was okay to eat bread. I also began to realise how much my body needs iron and calcium and all the other nutrients I'd been depriving it of. I gradually began to re-introduce bread, cheese, milk, meat, chicken and pasta."

Harriette says that it's only by empowering teenagers with the right information that we can help them develop a more realistic approach to health and fitness.

"We can help by providing the truth about how the body works and how good nutrition is essential to nourish and nurture the body.

"Stop the hype on dieting, stop the elimination of food groups from the diet, stop the obsession with supplements, and empower teens and young women to make educated food choices that will sustain their health and well being in the present and in the future."

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