As a 32-year-old journalist with a master’s degree in nutrition, it’s pretty clear to me that at least 90% of the nutrition advice on TikTok is total garbage. It’s rife with young, thin influencers showcasing their (typically low-calorie) daily meals in an attempt to “inspire” others to eat like they do.
HuffPost and many other outlets have reported on why these types of videos can be bad for mental health and triggering for those with eating disorders. Yet, this kind of terrible “healthy eating” inspiration is as popular as ever.
You only have to do a quick search of the #healthyrecipes tag to see that TikTok is littered with not-so-healthy ideas. We asked two registered dietitians, both of whom use TikTok, to weigh in on some of these “healthy” recipes.
1. Cucumber dipped in stevia, instead of watermelon
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that most adults eat at least two servings of fruit per day, and they repeatedly call out fruit as a key component in a healthy diet. Unfortunately, TikTok might have you believe otherwise. Recently, keto TikToker Janelle Rohner recommended replacing watermelon with cucumber slices dipped in the sugar substitute stevia, which apparently taste the same.
“This is some next-level TikTok sorcery, where audiences have been led to believe that replacing a nourishing fruit like watermelon with a vegetable (quite the lateral move) and dipping it into a sweetener is somehow beneficial,” said Cara Harbstreet, a dietitian who owns Street Smart Nutrition. “This is driven by a cultural fear of carbs and foods that contain them, including fruit, despite known nutritional benefit to eating these foods.”
Watermelon is packed with nutrients, and there’s no reason not to eat it. If you’re craving fruit, just eat the fruit!
2. Weight loss detox drinks
There’s nothing wrong with juice. But blending up pineapple, cucumber, lemon, ginger and water and calling it a “detox” drink that leads to weight loss? That’s wildly inaccurate and harmful.
“When influencers (with NO medical background) create videos saying something is ‘healthy,’ not only are they not factual but they are usually harmful,” said Sam Previte, a dietitian and the owner of Find Food Freedom.
There’s nothing inherently detoxifying about this drink — because “detoxes” and “cleanses” don’t actually work. Plus, if you’re drinking this for breakfast, you’re missing out on fat and protein, two important macronutrients.
3. Low-carb Cool Whip ice cream
“Ice cream is ice cream, plain and simple,” Harbstreet said, pointing out that there’s even a United States Department of Agriculture definition for what counts as ice cream and what doesn’t. The TikTok suggestion to mix Sugar-Free Cool Whip with a package of Jell-O Instant Pudding and freeze it into ice cream likely doesn’t qualify.
“While this could be a snack that satisfies a craving for sweet flavor and creamy texture, positioning it as a replacement for genuine ice cream suggests that ice cream should only be consumed if it meets a low-calorie, low-fat, low-sugar standard,” Harbstreet said.
In other words, this is just another low-calorie ice cream substitute that demonizes real ice cream, which is far more satisfying.
4. Cucumber ‘everything bagel’
Simply scoop out the seeds of the cucumber, TikTok says, and fill the cuke with some cream cheese topped with everything bagel seasoning. Voila! A low-carb bagel!
Except, of course, a cucumber won’t satisfy your bagel craving.
“This speaks to both the cultural demonization of carbs as well as misunderstanding of what a nutritionally balanced, medically supervised ketogenic diet is,” Harbstreet said.
She’s referring to the fact that people with certain medical conditions might benefit from following a true ketogenic diet, but not by following the random #ketorecipe suggestions on TikTok.
“Framing a vegetable as a replacement for something like a bagel drives a lot of fear around eating carbs or having ‘too much’ bread,” Harbstreet said.
5. Stale cheese ‘keto’ popcorn
One popular TikTok video explains that leaving cheese cubes out at room temperature for at least 48 hours until they’re stale, then baking them until they’re crispy and plump, makes them taste like popcorn. The question is: Why would you do that?
This “speaks to volumes of people who struggle with disordered eating,” Previte said. “Sixty-five percent of women ages 25-45 struggle with disordered eating and an additional 9% have clinically diagnosed eating disorders.”
It’s no wonder that the young, impressionable TikTok audience falls for food trends like this, since many are willing to go to great lengths to lose weight or be “healthy.” As evidenced by this list, there’s a lot of unnecessary fear of carbohydrates, and this crazy stale cheese trend is just another misinformed attempt at eating fewer carbs.
“As a registered dietitian and intuitive eating counselor, let me be explicitly clear that you do not have to eat stale cheese,” Previte said. “You can have popcorn whenever you want and still be healthy.”
6. Bell pepper sandwiches
Whole wheat bread has tons of nutrients, but TikTok suggests that you skip it and build your sandwich inside a bell pepper instead! Dietitians say that’s wildly unnecessary.
“There is nothing wrong with using bread for a sandwich,” Previte said. The brain needs a minimum of 130 grams of carbs per day to function properly, which she equates to about eight slices of bread.
“Of course you can get carb from other food sources, but carbs are not the enemy,” Previte said.
If you think a bell pepper “sandwich” sounds delicious? Go ahead and eat one! But there’s no need to avoid bread.
Harbstreet voiced another concern. “This trend is also edging into some subtle or overt elitism,” she said. A bell pepper, particularly an organic bell pepper like many TikTokers recommend, is considerably more expensive than two slices of bread.
7. Lettuce water as a sleep aid
There’s a new trend of ― no joke ― steeping whole lettuce leaves in your tea. Supposedly, it helps you sleep.
“There is no scientific evidence to suggest this sleep aid works in humans,” Harbstreet said.
The idea likely comes from the fact that certain molecules found in romaine lettuce have been shown to promote sleep in animal studies, but that’s hardly a reason to believe that putting a few leaves in your tea will have the same effect.
“Videos like this speak to the effort of TikTok influencers to gain clout by hopping on trends. You’ll notice many of the videos exaggerate the alleged outcomes by making claims that they ‘fell asleep and forgot to finish the video,’ suggesting it works better than claimed.”
The bottom line? Don’t mistake TikTok trends for legitimate nutrition advice.
“As a dietitian, I see many of these trends as the manifestation of our culture’s deeply disordered relationship with food and health,” Harbstreet said. “The majority of them exhibit orthorexic tendencies as best, with some major red flags for eating disorder behaviors at worst.” Essentially, they’re about eating less — fewer calories, fewer carbs, less sugar and sometimes just as little food as possible.
Plus, many of these trends take off not because the recipe itself looks good, but because the influencer in the video fits the false cultural idea of what “healthy” looks like — young, white, able-bodied and very thin.
“I have some growing concerns about what damage this is doing to our perception of not only what ‘healthy’ eating looks like, but also who we look to when we think of how to be ‘healthy,’” Harbstreet said.
If you’re hoping to improve your health, seek out expert guidance from a credentialed health professional. Don’t turn to TikTok.