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  • Each year unhealthy diets are linked to 11m deaths worldwide a global study concludes
  • Red and processed meat not only cause disease and premature death from chronic non-communicable diseases (NCD) but also put the planet at unnecessary risk
  • Evidence suggests that the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of NCDs and is better for the Planet

Eat like Greeks, live healthier lives and save our planet

 
Findings of an international research project about the relationship between diet and chronic diseases are reported in a paper entitled, “Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries 1990-2017. A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017”, which is published in the April 2019 edition of The Lancet. The paper suggests that millions of people throughout the world consume an unhealthy diet comprised of  too much processed meat, sodium and sugar and too little plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts. This results in a significant increase in the prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as coronary heart disease, cancer and diabetes and  each year causes some 11m avoidable deaths worldwide - 22% of all adult deaths: 10m from cardiovascular disease, 913,000 from cancer and some 339,000 from type-2 diabetes. According to the paper’s authors, “A suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risks globally, including tobacco smoking, highlighting the urgent need for improving human diet across nations”.
 
In this Commentary
 
This Commentary reviews evidence of recent large-scale epidemiology studies, which suggest that “you are what you eat”.  Not only do unhealthy diets cause ill health and premature death for millions, they also harm the environment and push the Earth beyond its planetary boundaries. All the studies we describe conclude that we know the answer to this vast and escalating health problem: eat like Greeks or indeed the Japanese. Notwithstanding, changing the way populations collectively eat is a massive challenge facing governments, healthcare systems and individuals.
 
The Global Burden of Disease project
 
The Lancet paper’s findings described above are based on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) enterprise, which is one of the world’s largest scientific collaborative research projects, which was started in the early 1990s by the World Bank to measure the impact of disability and death from hundreds of diseases worldwide. Over the past two decades its work has grown, and the endeavour has become institutionalized at the World Health Organization (WHO). Today, the GBD project is an international consortium of more than 3,600 researchers, its findings are updated annually and they influence health policy throughout the world.
 
Red meat and bowel cancer
 
Findings of a more narrowly focussed but nonetheless significant study, published in the April 2019 edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology warn that red-processed meat consumption is linked with bowel cancer.  According to Tim Key, the study’s co-author, Professor of Epidemiology and Deputy Director at Oxford University's Cancer Epidemiology Unit, “Results strongly suggest that people who eat red and processed meat four or five times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who eat red and processed meat less than twice a week . . . . There’s substantial evidence that red and processed meat are linked to bowel cancer and the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as ‘carcinogenic’ and red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic’”. Notwithstanding, Key warns that, “Diet studies are problematic because those who take part often either forget what they have eaten or fail to tell the truth”. Key also suggests that, “Most previous research [on diet and cancer] looked at people in the 1990s or earlier and diets have changed significantly since then”.
 
Chronic non-communicable diseases
 
Chronic non-communicable diseases (NCD) are largely caused by humans and are therefore preventable. Notwithstanding, they account for more than 70% of all deaths globally and emergent NCDs pose significant systemic challenges for both nation states and individuals. Forty percent of all adults in the world are overweight and 1.4bn suffer from hypertension: both critical risk factors of NCDs. In 2016, 18m people died from cardiovascular disease (CVD), representing 31% of all global deaths. In the US an estimated 92m adults are living with CVD. By 2030, 44% of the US adult population is projected to have some form of CVD. There are around 7m people living with heart and circulatory disease in the UK. Worldwide some 0.5bn people have diabetes and in 2018 there were 17m new cases of cancer worldwide. Although there are some encouraging signs associated with the slowing of the prevalence rates of NCDs globally, prevalence of NCDs is expected to rise because of population growth and aging, misaligned healthcare policies and institutional inertia.
 
The paradox of food insecurity and obesity
 
Paradoxically, food scarcity and obesity are both forms of malnutrition and represent a vast and escalating burden on the worlds limited and diminishing resources. This is because food insecurity can contribute to people being overweight and obese. Nutritious fresh foods often tend to be expensive, so when household resources for food become scarce, people choose less expensive foods that are often high in calories and low in nutrients. As a result, adult obesity rates continue to rise each year, from 11.7% in 2012 to 13.2% in 2016. In 2017 the World Health Organization estimated that more than one in eight adults, or more than 672m people in the world, were obese and 2bn were classified as overweight. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank based in Washington DC, US, suggests that worldwide each year, "Malnutrition costs US$3.5trn, with overweight- and obesity-related NCDs, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, adding US$2trn”.
 
The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health
 
Not only do unhealthy diets result in NCDs and premature death, but they also harm the environment. The dual aspects of unhealthy diets causing disease and harming the planet are described in research conducted by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Healthand reported in the January 2019 edition of  The Lancet.
EAT is an independent non-profit organisation based in Oslo, Norway, dedicated to food-system reform, which collaborated with The Lancet. The report took 3-years to complete and brought together 37 world-renowned scientists from 16 countries with expertise in health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems, economics and political governance; and tasked them with reaching a consensus that defines a sustainable “healthy planetary diet”, which the authors suggest approximates a Mediterranean diet, see below.

The EAT-Lancet research, financed by the Wellcome Trust,analysed the diets of people in 195 countries using survey data, as well as sales data and household expenditure data to estimate the impact of unhealthy diets on the risk of death and morbidity from NCDs. The Commission’s authors provide a comprehensive picture of the consumption of 15 dietary factors across nations and quantify the potential impact of suboptimal intake of each dietary component on NCD mortality and morbidity among 195 countries. Also, researchers calculate mortality related to other risk factors,such as smoking and drug use, at the global level.

 

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Obesity: is processed food the new tobacco?
 

Criticism of the EAT-Lancet Commission
 
The EAT-Lancet Commission’s report has its critics. One is the UK’s National Farmers’ Union whose Vice President Stuart Roberts said, “Scientific communities agree that red meat plays a vital role in a healthy, balanced diet as a rich source of essential nutrients, minerals, amino acids and protein. It is overly simplistic to target one food group for a significant reduction in consumption, and it ignores its medically accepted role as a key part of a healthy, balanced diet   . . . It is clear that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and British farmers are continuing to take action. A combination of policies and practises will be needed to enable farmers to meet their ambitions, but we must not forget the impact of a changing climate on food production”.
 
Benefits of red meat
 
Roberts is right to point out that red meat has health benefits. Heme iron, which is found in red meat (also in poultry, seafood and fish) is easily absorbed by your body and is a significant source of your dietary iron. Red meat also supplies you with vitamin B12 and zinc. The former is required for red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis, and the latter helps stimulate the activity of at least 100 different enzymes and helps to keep your immune system working effectively. Further, red meat provides protein, which helps to build your bones and muscles. People have been eating meat for millennia and have developed digestive systems well equipped to handle it.

Notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of red meat consumed in the developed world today is processed: raised in a factory environment, fed grain-based feed and given growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics and some animals, after being slaughtered, are further treated with nitrates, preservatives and various chemicals. The findings of all three studies described above demonstrate the harm of eating too much red and processed meat and stress the health and environmental benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

 
An urgent challenge
 
According to the EAT-Lancet Commission’s authors, “Providing healthy diets from sustainable food systems is an urgent and pressing challenge”. As the global population continues to grow - projected to reach 10bn by 2050 - and become wealthier, there is expected to be a concomitant increase in unhealthy diets comprised of red meat, processed food and sugar. To address this vast and escalating challenge, populations will need to combine significant dietary changes with enhanced food production and reduced food waste.
 
The impact of food waste
 
Before broaching some of the challenges associated with changing the way we eat collectively let us briefly describe the magnitude and effect of food wastage. According to the United Nation’s (UN) 1.3bn tonnes of food are wasted every year, which is about 33% of the total produced. The cost of global food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$990bn and yet some 800m people worldwide do not get enough to eat and 2bn people are overweight.
 
Further, food wastage is estimated to release the equivalent of 3.3bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. The total volume of water used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km³) is equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva. Similarly, 1.4bn hectares of land - 28% of the world's agricultural area - is used to produce food that is lost or wasted. And agriculture is responsible for a majority of threats to at-risk plant and animal species tracked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
 
Changing what we eat and how we produce food will save lives and the planet
 
According to Alan Dangour, Professor in Food and Nutrition for Global Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), “The EAT-Lancet Commission’s analysis demonstrates that shifts in our diets can have enormous beneficial effects on health and also substantially reduce our impacts on the environment.  This significant ‘win-win’ for health and the environment is not a new finding, but this analysis, which for the first time defines environmental boundaries for the food system, is the most advanced ever conducted”.
 
In a similar vein, Tara Garnett, a contributor to the EAT-Lancet Commission and a principal investigator of another research project on the future of food, also suggests that there’s nothing new in the Commission’s report but its fundamental message is that, “We’re not going to address our environmental problems unless we address the problems caused by the food system and we’re not going to address the problems caused by the food system unless we shift the way we eat collectively and globally”.

 
Rebalancing unhealthy diets is a significant challenge
 
Changing how we eat collectively, which Garnett and others suggest is necessary to reduce NCDs and enhance our environment, is not going to be easy. This is because it would involve cutting by half our consumption of red meat, processed food and sugar, and doubling our consumption of vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts. For people living in the US and UK it would be even more challenging because the EAT-Lancet Commission ranks the US 43rd and the UK 23rd for their respective unhealthy diets out of the 195 nations in its study. It is suggested that in order to adopt a healthy diet Americans would need to eat 84% less red meat and six times more beans and lentils, and British people would have to eat 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds.

Countries with the lowest rates of diet-related deaths are Israel, France, Spain and Japan. The highest rates are reported to be found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the Marshall Islands. According to the Commission’s authors a Mediterranean-type-diet, “is what we should all be eating if we are concerned about our health and that of the planet”: it lowers the incidences of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, enables more environmentally helpful use of land and reduces carbon emissions.

 
The Mediterranean diet
 
The Mediterranean diet has been around for millennia and tends to be more of a lifestyle than a diet. It entails significantly lower amounts of beef, dairy products, sugar, soft drinks, pastries and processed foods; higher amounts of fish, fruit, nuts and salads, and no pasta, French fries and pastries. Unlike fashionable commercial diets associated with the weight management market, the Mediterranean diet does not have a set of specific rules that focus on losing weight, but instead emphasises eating fresh food over a lifetime. Also, the Mediterranean diet has been well studied. Research suggests that it is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and cardiovascular mortality because of its significantly lower amounts of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, (the "bad" cholesterol) which is more likely to build up deposits in your arteries. Other benefits include reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Further, women who follow a Mediterranean diet have a reduced risk of breast cancer.
 
The PREDIMED study
 
Findings of a landmark clinical trial, entitled “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”, was published in the June 2013 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Popularly known as the PREDIMED study (Prevencion con Dieta Mediterranea), it tested the impact of two Mediterranean diets on cardiovascular risk. The first included a Mediterranean diet plus 30 grams of mixed nuts per day and the second was a Mediterranean diet plus at least four tablespoons a day of extra-virgin olive oil. The two diets were then compared to a low-fat diet, which is popularly advocated and pursued in the US and UK and among other developed nations and discourages the consumption of any high-fat items such as butter, cheese, oil, meats and pastries.
 
The low-fat diet
 
In the 1960s low-fat diets as opposed to high-fat, high-cholesterol diets were considered to promote heart health. By the late 1980s and early 1990s the low-fat diet was advocated by doctors, policy makers, the food industry and the media although there was no hard evidence to demonstrate it prevented heart disease and promoted weight loss. Notwithstanding, the low-fat-diet became an important part of the large and rapidly growing global weight management market, which is valued at some US$169bn and projected to grow at a CAGR of 2.4% and reach a value US$279bn by 2023. Interestingly, in the 80s and 90s, as the low-fat diet became an institution in the US and UK so the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased. Only recently has the low-fat diet been challenged as scientific evidence about fats increased.
 
A significant study with some methodological challenges
 
The PREDIMED study involved 7,447 people between 55 and 80 who were free from heart disease, came from 11 study centres across Spain and were randomly assigned to one of the three diets for five years. Findings suggested that the Mediterranean diet significantly reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke and cardio-vascular mortality compared to the low-fat diet. However, researchers discovered flaws with the study’s methodology and withdraw their findings. Most significantly, not all participants were randomly assigned to their diet and this could have influenced their findings.
 
Revised study of the Mediterranean diet
 
Researchers adjusted their methodology for its "irregularities in the randomization procedures" and published “new” findings in the June 2018 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which confirmed the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet for adults at high risk for heart disease and found that the Mediterranean diet, plus olive oil or nuts, reduced risk for heart events by 30% compared to a low-fat diet. Lead author Miguel Ángel Martínez-González suggested that only about 10% of participants were affected in their earlier study reported in 2013, and their 2018 analysis made researchers, "More convinced than ever of the robustness of the protection by the Mediterranean diet against cardiovascular disease”. According to Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the NEJM, "Medical professionals and their patients can use the republished information with confidence". While reaction to the study’s initial findings was disappointing, experts are encouraged by the adjusted findings, which confirm the heart-health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, particularly in adults at high risk for heart disease. Notwithstanding, experts emphasise the significance of sustaining a healthy diet over time.
  
The health benefits of the Japanese diet
 
The Mediterranean diet is not the only diet, which has proven to have significant health benefits. The Japanese diet, which is low in calories and saturated fat and high in nutrients, especially phytonutrients such as antioxidants and flavonoids, found in different coloured vegetables, also has considerable health benefits. Findings of two studies; one published in the April 2017 edition of PLOS.ONE, and another published in the March 2016 edition of the British Medical Journal demonstrate that, closer adherence to a Japanese diet resulted in a significantly lower risk of death from NCDs and in particular from cardiovascular disease or stroke. Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country: 90 years for women and 84 for men. Okinawa, in southernmost Japan, has the highest number of centenarians in the world as well as the lowest risk of age-related diseases such as cancer and heart disease. There are nearly 800 centenarians in Okinawa, which has a population of 1,368,000. The diet of the Okinawan people has been little influenced by the dietary changes influenced by western culture, which also have been seen in more urban Japan.
 
Takeaways
 
All the research findings we describe in this Commentary confirm the adage that, “You are what you eat”. Nutrients from the food you eat provide support for all the cells in your body, which have different “shelf lives”. For example, your skin cells live for about a month and your red blood cells for about four months. So, your body is constantly regenerating new cells to replace those that have “expired”. The health of your new cells is partly determined by how well you have been eating. A diet high on processed red meat and low on nutrients does not help in this regeneration process. But a nutrient rich, whole food diet can help to build your cells so that they work better to help you recover from common illnesses and the wear-and-tear of everyday life and make you less susceptible to disease.
 
Although our concern about healthy eating has intensified in recent years, the phrase, “you are what you eat” is not new. In 1826 Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, "Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es[Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are]. However, the phrase did not emerge in English until the 1920s when nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, who believed that food controls health, developed the Catabolic Diet. According to Lindlahr, "Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat". And in 1942, he published a book entitled, “You Are What You Eat: how to win and keep health with diet”. Eat like the Greeks, live healthier lives and save our planet.
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  • Life-changing eating disorders are increasing, and their causes are assumed to be more about emotional and psychological challenges than food
  • For 60 years the global fashion industry has encouraged teenage girls and young women to emulate an unrealistic ‘thin ideal’ body image
  • As social media became the principal means for young people to communicate and receive information, so billions of fashion advertising dollars migrated to social media to propagate the ‘thin ideal’  
  • Although nearly a third of the world’s population participate in social media and a significant proportion are “extreme” daily users, the mechanisms of social media and their effect on young peoples’ mental health are not fully understood
  • Notwithstanding, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the more time people spend on social media the greater is their likelihood of developing mental ill-health and eating disorder

Is social media an accelerant for life-threatening eating disorders?
 
A May 2018 Brooking’s Institute research paper suggested that social media has become a significant mechanism for spreading and reinforcing misinformation - fake news - which can influence and disrupt democratic political processes and thereby are a threat to 21st century democracy.  Similarly, we contend that misinformation about body images, diets, lifestyles and beauty distributed on social media could be an accelerant for teenage and adolescent girls to engage in life-changing disordered patterns of eating to achieve an unrealistic body image.
 
A September 2018 report by Sky News UK suggested that entities, which actually promote eating disorders and unhealthy and dangerous attitudes towards food and body image were not picked-up by Instagram, an online photo-sharing app with 1bn active monthly users. Daniel Magson, vice chair of Anorexia & Bulimia Care, a charity, suggested that Instagram is "not a safe space” because it hosts communities, which promote, “the best ways to injure or self-harm,” and recommend “the best places to dine with private toilets for afterwards”.
 
A 2017 survey of 1,500 14 to 24 year-olds in the UK carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) rated Instagram the worst social media site for young people’s mental health, and suggested that, "social media may be fuelling a mental health crisis" in young people. Shirley Cramer, the CEO of the RSPH, said: "It's interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat (another photo sharing app with 191m active daily users) ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing; both platforms are very image-focused.Instagram is addressing the issue and recently announced that it is doubling the number of people working across safety and security teams for Facebook and Instagram to 20,000 by the end of 2018, which includes a team of 7,500 content reviewers (Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 for US$1bn, 18 months after its launch).
 
In this Commentary

This Commentary:
1. Describes common eating disorders
2. Provides a brief analysis of the incidence, distribution and determinants of eating disorders
3. Explains the genesis of the ‘thin ideal’ and how it has become an unrealistic body image, which the fashion industry encourages young people to emulate
4. Provides a short historical description of Western social media and notes that although it has rapidly become a global phenomenon the mechanisms that drive it are not widely understood
5. Explains some of the hidden mechanisms how social media may affect a user’s perceptions of themselves and influence their behaviour
6. Provides a brief selective summary of the growing body of research, which reports “extreme” use of social media by teenager girls and young women and the rise in incidence rates of mental ill-health and eating disorders in this cohort
7. Describes how the fashion industry was quick to realise the significance of social media as a cost-effective means to influence the opinions and purchasing behaviour of teenage girls and young women and shifted billions of marketing dollars away from traditional content providers to social media platforms to promote the ‘thin ideal’
8. Suggests that longitudinal studies are necessary in order to increase our understanding of the association between multifaceted eating disorders and social media
9. Concludes that social media was a communications revolution that promised to increase interactions and flows of information and knowhow between millions of dispersed people and lower cultural, religious and regional divides. On one level it achieved this. But as social media developed and was better understood, so it was realized that social media could also be used as an agent for misinformation – fake news - and to encourage discordant behaviour. And therefore, social media could become an accelerant for mental ill health and life-threatening eating disorders.
 
1
Eating disorders
 
Almost everyone worries about their weight occasionally. Abnormal eating disorders are when individuals take such concerns to extremes and obsessively focus on their weight, body shape and food and this can threaten their health, emotions and their ability to function in important areas of life. The most common eating disorders are: (i) anorexia nervosa, which is a serious, potentially life-threatening illness where individuals often equate thinness with self-worth; think they are fat even when they are dangerously thin, and restrict eating to the point of starvation, which leads to extreme weight loss and a low body mass index (BMI) 2, (a BMI of between 18.5 kg/m2 and 24.9 kg/m2 is considered a healthy range for young women); (ii) bulimia nervosa: is when individuals eat excessive amounts of food, then purge, which may include self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, appetite suppressants or other stimulants; and (iii) binge eating, which is when individuals regularly eat too much food (binge) and feel a lack of control over their eating, but they do not purge. Two further eating disorders, which are growing in significance, but as yet, are not officially recognised as medical conditions are orthorexia and drunkorexia. The former is when individuals want to live healthier lives by eating well, but then get so obsessed with “healthy” food that they become unwell and socially isolated. The latter is a condition where individuals use extreme weight control methods as a means to compensate for planned binge drinking.

 
2
Epistemology

Before 2000 the overall incidence rates of eating disorders were relatively stable for a few decades. But following the introduction and spread of social media there was a hike in the incidence rates, especially among Western teenage girls. However, it is not altogether clear whether this is due to an increase in eating disorders or the result of more effective diagnoses and a greater awareness of the conditions.

The US National Eating Disorder Association, estimates that there are some 70m people worldwide with eating disorders and about 30m in the US. A 2017 US National Institutes of Health report suggests that between 2001 and 2003 the lifetime prevalence of anorexia nervosa in American adults was 0.6%, and 3-times higher among females (0.9%) than males (0.3%). The prevalence of bulimia nervosa was 0.3%; 5-times higher among females (0.5%) than males (0.1%), and the overall prevalence of binge eating was 1.2% and twice as high among females (1.6%) than males (0.8%).

A 2013 report from the UK’s Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health suggested that there are over 1.6m people in Britain with eating disorders, but this is likely to be an underestimate since a significant proportion of people with such disorders do not seek help. The UK’s Department of Health suggests that a more likely figure is about 4m. Information provided by The Priory, a private hospital group specialising in mental health, suggests that 1% of all women aged between 15 and 30 in the UK are affected with anorexia nervosa, 40% of people with eating disorders suffer from bulimia, and the people most affected with eating disorders are females between 11 and 25.
 
The exact causes of eating disorders are not well established, but a significant body of opinion suggests that they are not about food, but more to do with unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening ways to cope with emotional problems. In parallel with these psychological explanations there is research to suggest that eating disorders have either genetic or biological causes associated with 2-way communications between the gut and the brain through both nerve connections and biochemical signals. A recurring theme shared by people with all types of eating disorders is an expressed or implied dissatisfaction with their body image and their aspiration to achieve the “thin ideal”, which is a concept that has been propagated by the fashion industry for the past 60 years.

 

3
The thin ideal
 
Over time what has generally been accepted as a beautiful body has changed. In recent history, the biggest change occurred in the I960s when thinness and the absence of a figure became a body image propagated by the global fashion industry as an ideal for teenage girls and young women to emulate. This was personified by Lesley Lawson, an English model known as “Twiggy”, who had a slim androgynous look and a body mass index (BMI) of 15 kg/m2, (a BMI under 18.5 kg/m2 is considered malnourished). Twiggy replaced the notion of a beautiful woman as full-figured and gave birth to the “thin ideal”.  In the 1970s diet pills and amphetamines became widely used to suppress appetite in order to cultivate the thin ideal. The 1980s was the decade of the supermodel when the thin ideal became even thinner, and about the same time anorexia nervosa began to receive mainstream medical attention. Notwithstanding, in the 1990s the ideal body for young women became an extremely thin look with big breasts, and by the end of the 90s the fashion industry propagated a “heroin chic” look, which was characterised by a skeletal body, emaciated features, androgyny, red lips and dark circles under the eyes. Thus, for the past six decades the body shape of the “most admired” models, which fashion advertising encouraged young girls to emulate, has remained consistently slimmer than that of the average western woman. However, at the end of the 1960s there was a “hippie” era when, for a relatively short period, a more full-figured look returned, and more recently there have been movements towards a more realistic standard of beauty. Notwithstanding, the thin ideal persists and continues to affect teenage girls and young women who emulate this unrealistic body image and become preoccupied with their weight and size, which some control by various unhealthy means and this results in anxiety, negative body image and dieting to below their natural body weight.
 
4
Social media

Over the past decade, as social media has become the primary means by which young people communicate, share and receive information, so the fashion industry has increasingly used social media to propagate the thin ideal. Social media is comprised of a collective of websites and applications, which enable users to create and distribute content and to interact and collaborate with friendship groups. Social media’s power and influence is significantly related to the number of users, its penetration and the regularity of usage. By the end of 2019 it is projected that there will be around 2.77bn social media users worldwide and 3bn by 2021, which equates to about a third of the world’s population. Social media’s global penetration is increasing: in 2017, 71% of internet users were social media users. Recent studies - see section 6 below - suggest that there is an increasing proportion of “extreme users” who spend up to 8 hours a day on social media.
 

A brief history of social media

Here we provide a brief and partial history of Western social media platforms. Social media started in 1997 with Six Degrees, which was an online platform that enabled users to upload their profile and share it with friends. MySpace followed in 2003 and was acquired 2 years later by News Corporation for US$0.58bn. At its peak in 2008, MySpace was the world’s most visited social media site with 76m unique monthly visitors. LinkedIn, a business and employment networking platform was also founded in 2003 and today has some 0.5bn registered members in 200 countries, 106m of whom are active. Facebook launched in 2004, has become the world’s most widely used social media platform with some 2.23bn active monthly users. 76% of Facebook users are female. In 2012 it was estimated that 83m Facebook accounts were bogus, (for relevance see discussion on ‘social bots’ in section 5 below). YouTube founded in 2005, is a global video sharing platform featuring a wide variety of user generated and corporate media content and is now the world’s 3rd most visited site after Google, the world’s most used search engine. Every minute some 400 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube, each day people watch 1bn hours of videos, more than half are watched on a mobile device and the average viewing session lasts 40 minutes. Reddit, founded in 2005, is a social media forum where content is socially curated and promoted by users through voting. It was acquired by Condé Nast in 2006 for an undisclosed amount between US$10 and US$20m but is now independent. As of February 2018, Reddit had 542m active monthly visitors. Twitter, an online news and social networking site launched in 2006 has some 328m monthly active users. Tumblr, founded in 2007 and acquired in 2013 by Yahoo! for US$1.1bn, is a microblogging and social networking website. As of 2017, Tumblr had almost 738m unique visitors globally and generated over 148bn posts. Instagram a photo and video-sharing social media network was founded in 2010, acquired by Facebook in 2017 for US$1bn, and has 1bn monthly active users. Snapchat, a multimedia messaging app launched in 2011 has some 188m active daily users sharing over 400m photographs every day. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular social media sites.
 
5
Hidden mechanisms that drive social media

Human biases
Social media encourages users to constantly compare and judge their bodies with that of the thin ideal of “friends” and “celebrities” they follow. Cyberbullies and body shamers, can relatively easily use social media to infiltrate an individual’s private space and daily life. They may then constantly post information, which can affect that individual feeling inadequate about themselves and their body image. Social media postings can be 'shared', 're-tweeted', 'liked', copied and end up 'going viral'.  Where a posting is defamatory, the damage done can be significant.  Cyberbullying is a form of wilful and repeated harm, which is inflicted through the use of social media and is often directed at a user’s body image and appearance. Shamers are people who use social media to publicly mock or criticize someone for a particular aspect of their appearance or behaviour and makes them feel either humiliated or ashamed.

Females under 25, are predisposed to perceive what they see on social media as reality despite the fact that many images could have been altered and information might be fake. Social media differs from traditional mediabecause it is a distributor of content and not a publisher. This means that social media platforms are not regulated in the same way as traditional media outlets, which suggests that misinformation can be spread unimpeded. Individuals tend to pay more attention to information that supports their previously held beliefs and are more prone to share such information even if it is false. Further, individuals have different tolerance levels towards the ambiguity of information and have an innate desire to minimize uncertainty. Social media provides a means to do this. Users can use the “like”, sharing and friendship functions to give precedence to information that accords with users’ perceptions of self, body image and beauty etc. This tends to narrow the scope of information, which individuals receive, and therefore users of social media are often unaware of competing perspectives. Thus, social media can have the effect of segregating people into virtual communities of likeminded individuals, which makes them potential targets of specific marketing endeavours seeking to influence their behaviour.

Social media and Al
The behaviour of social media users is also influenced by deep learning algorithms. Originally social media used artificial intelligence (AI) to forward information chronologically. Now algorithms are taught to identify information, which already has significant engagement among friendship groups and then to distribute that information to millions of like-minded users, who, in turn share it with their friendship groups, which then is identified again by algorithms and distributed even further and so on and so forth. This creates a significant ‘cycle of influence’, which can be used to effectively spread messages and body images to people predisposed to such information and is a gift to marketers who can use such mechanisms to influence peoples’ beliefs and behaviours at zero cost. Marketing firm Tribe Dynamics has developed a metric called “Earned Media Value” (EMV), which measures the marketing revenues saved through such social media promotional endeavours. It seems reasonable to suggest that such cycles of influence could transform social media platforms into agents for establishing and confirming user biases towards body images, diets and lifestyles just as fake news can influence peoples’ political beliefs and behaviours.
  
Social bots
Bots are automated software applications. Social bots, with fake identities, control social media accounts and trick legitimate users that they are real human beings and they then automatically generate and spread images and information at a much higher rate than any human. This can significantly affect users’ opinions and behaviours. Although illegal, social bots are provided as a service by marketing companies. Celebrities use them to boost their social media images and make them appear to have many more followers than they actually do; and this can legitimize them being social influencers.  Social bots are most common on Twitter, but they are also used on other social media platforms. For instance, as mentioned above, Facebook is reported to have some 83m fake accounts. What differentiates social bots from other forms of malware is the fact that they specifically exploit social media’s trust factor to join networks and friendship groups so that they can influence users’ opinions and behaviours. Social media platforms are beginning to employ neural networks to identify social bots and close them down, but still they persist.
 
Users’ naivety
A significant proportion of social media users do not understand the hidden mechanisms used to influence an individual’s opinions and behaviours. While most social media users understand that not all information they find online is truthful, a  2018  study by the UK government’s telecommunications regulator Ofcom suggests that 10% of social media users do not think about whether the “factual” information they find is truthful, and 23% do not make any checks on the trustworthiness of the content on social media. Although 54% are aware of how search engines are mainly funded, 18% give an incorrect response, and almost 28% do not know. Only 48% of search engine users are able correctly to identify advertising on Google, despite it being identified by a box with the word “Ad” in it, and just under 18% think that if something has been listed by a search engine it must contain accurate and unbiased information, although this figure has decreased since 2016, when 21% thought so.
 
6
The evidence

Extremeusers
It is well-established that teenagers and young adults spend a significant amount of time on social media and increasingly less time with traditional media such as TV, magazines and newspapers. According to Statista, in 2017, the average daily usage of social media worldwide amounted to 135 minutes, up from 126 minutes in 2016. Teenagers and young adults in the US and UK spend an average of 170 and 180 minutes a day respectively on social media. The 2018 Ofcom report, mentioned above, suggests that 6% of British children between 12 and 15 are “extreme users” of social media and spend up to 8 hours a day online at weekends, and this could negatively affect their mental health. Findings further suggest that during the week 1% of this cohort spends more than 8 hours a day on social media, 4% more than 6 hours and 11% between 4 and 8 hours. The report concludes that social media use in the UK is almost universal: 98% of 16 to 24-year-olds use social media as do 96% of those between 25 and 54.

Eating disorders
A 2011 study by researchers from the University of HaifaIsrael, examined 248 young women between 12 to 19 and found that more exposure to social media contributed to higher rates of eating disorders and related concerns. Specifically, the more time they spent on social media, the more likely they were to struggle with “…bulimia, anorexia, physical dissatisfaction, negative physical self-image, negative approach to eating and more of an urge to be on a weight-loss diet.”

Mental ill health
A  July 2015 paper published in Cyberpsychology Behavior and Social Networking, suggests a significant correlation between time spent on social media and experiences of high levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation. Findings show that students with poor mental health spend longer on social media. An association between time spent on social media and mental ill-health is also suggested in a 2015 US study by the non-profit group Common Sense MediaBased on a national sample of more than 2,600 young people aged between 8 and 18, findings suggest that teenagers are spending more than 9 hours a day using social media; and children between 8 and 12 nearly 6 hours a day; and that time spent on social media impacts their mental health.

A 2015 report from the UK’s Office for National Statistics suggests that children who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media are twice as likely to report ‘high’ or ‘very high’ scores for mental ill-health. These findings accord with a 2017 study undertaken by Emily Frith for the OECD entitled Social Media and Children’s Mental Health. Frith’s findings suggest that there is a significant correlation between time spent on social media and mental ill-health: 37% of British 15-year-olds are “extreme social media users” spending at least 6 hours a day online and this may have damaging mental health consequences. Further, 18% of extreme social media users in the UK were more likely to report being bullied, which is a contributory factor of mental ill-health.

Cyberbullying and eating disorders
A 2018 UK all party parliamentary inquiry into social media and cyberbullying found that cyberbullying is, “distinct and potent, particularly due to its potential to be relentless". . .and there is an, “association between the time children spend on social media and their emotional well-being . . . . . Children and young people who are currently experiencing a mental health problem are more than three times more likely to have been bullied online in the last year.” The Inquiry also suggests that, “There is a connection between intensive social media use and mental ill-health - 38% of young people reported that social media has a negative impact on how they feel about themselves, compared to 23% who reported that it has a positive impact. This was exacerbated for girls, with 46% of girls stating that social media had a negative impact on their self-esteem.” A 2015 report by the US National Eating Disorders Association found that, “65% of people with eating disorders say bullying contributed to their condition”.

 
7
The global fashion industry’s advertising dollars
 
The global fashion industry has a market value of about US$3trn, and employs some 116m people. In recent years, as traditional media declined and social media became the principal way people consumed and shared content, so marketing revenues shifted from traditional content providers to social media. This migration is aided by the increase popularization of mobile telephony and the increasing availability and affordability of mobile internet. eMarketer, a consultancy, estimates that in 2018 US marketers will spend some US$48bn on digital display ads. Social advertising in all formats is gaining traction and will be among the key drivers of digital advertising growth in the next five years. Social advertising revenue is expected to reach US$31bn by 2021, up from US$16bn in 2016.
 
8
More research needed

We have described some research, which documents the “extreme” use of social media by teenagers and young adults and the rise in incidence rates of mental ill-health and eating disorders. Also, we have described some studies that suggest a significant association between the two variables. Notwithstanding, establishing significance between complex eating disorders and social media remains challenging despite the fact that the incidence levels of eating disorders increased during the period of rapid social media growth. Challenges to establishing significance include: (i) a relative lack of deep understanding of social media and the global fashion industry, (ii) a relative lack of consistent data for long-term time series studies, (iii) the fact that over the past few decades the diagnostic criteria of eating disorders have changed, and (iv) research methods and access to patient mental health data have also changed.

We also have shown that the concept of the thin ideal has been propagated by a media driven celebrity culture over the past 60 years. We describe some of the “hidden” mechanisms and techniques used by social media to spread specific messages in order to influence users’ opinions and behaviours. These, together with: (i) the rapid spread and “extreme” usage of social media and (ii) the fact that billions of marketing dollars have shifted away from traditional media to social networks in order to influence opinions and behaviours, is evidence to suggest that social media could have a significant influence on impressionable young girls’ perceptions about themselves, their body images and encourage them to engage in disorderly eating to reduce their body weight to an unhealthy level.
 
9
Takeaways
 
Social media is a communications revolution, which promised unprecedented connectivity and the free flow of ideas and knowhow, which transcends cultural and geographic boundaries and brings greater choice and enhanced freedom to billions of people. There is no better illustration of its power and influence than the Arab Springin 2010 when social media was used to instigate the overthrow of numerous dictatorships in various regions of the world. For a short time afterwards, social media appeared to be the gateway to a new era for democracy and freedom of choice. However, none of the spontaneous uprisings fuelled by social media resulted in any discernible long-term benefits. As social media grew so did peoples’ knowledge and understanding of the phenomenon, and so grew concerns that social media could be a two-edged sword with the capacity to damage and harm as well as do good. Social media might well be an accelerant for life-changing eating disorders, but it still has to be proven.
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Justin Basquille

Consultant Psychiatrist

Dr Basquille has been a consultant since 2000 in General Adult Psychiatry with a specialism in Substance Misuse practising in the NHS in charge of a busy Assessment and Treatment Service, a University Hospital Liaison Service and an Alcohol Clinic.

He practises privately at the Capio Nightingale Hospital London and Harley Street.


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