A woman taking a photo of her food on her phone

What I Eat In A Day: why are we so obsessed with other people’s diets?

Posted by for Nutrition

Full Day of Eating videos are booming online, but the trend only taps into our longstanding obsession with what other people eat.

There are over 10 billion views for #WhatIEatInADay (WIEIAD) videos on TikTok. That’s 10 billion times people have watched, in explicit detail, what other people put in their mouths over a 24-hour period. And there are hundreds of videos for every diet, goal and lifestyle: What I Eat In A Day to stay fit, to lose weight, to build muscle, as a vegan, as a model, as a mum; high-protein, high-carb, “realistic”…

While TikTok may be the newest platform on which to share the intimate details of our daily nutritional intakes, the actual concept of WIEIAD is not new. YouTubers have been posting these videos for as long as that platform has existed, and we were just as obsessed with what other people eat before the internet even happened.

The analogue version of these digital food diaries exists in meal plans printed in magazines and newspapers, photoshoots looking inside the fridges of famous people and nitty-gritty details from their nutritionists shared with tabloids. But you don’t need to be famous or have a following to have people ask what you eat, either: perhaps it was the first thing your parents asked when you arrived home from school, the opening question in afternoon meetings with colleagues, or information to voluntarily share with friends to justify the size of your dinner in a restaurant (“Just something small, I’ve eaten so much today” or “I’m starving, I’ve barely had time to eat”).

Someone taking a photo of their lunch bowl
What I Eat In A Day posts get a lot of traction on social media

“Food has always been a focal issue,” agrees Renee McGregor, an eating disorder and sports nutrition expert. “It’s always been emotive, but it was nowhere near as emotive as it is now.”

The pros and cons of What I Eat In A Day posts 

For some people, these WIEIAD posts are helpful – a quick poll I ran on Instagram of nearly 100 people found that 43% like them, with many saying they can be used as inspiration and to get meal ideas. In fact, in the eating disorder community, these posts are a popular way of encouraging people not to skip meals and to normalise regular calorie intakes. More generally, WIEIADs are often posted by influencers to show that their days include “real’ foods” (chocolate, ready meals, restaurant dinners), as we pull back the curtain on Instagram perfection.

But as with any trend that goes viral, there’s backlash. Just as frequently as the WIEIAD posts are being shared, so too are the videos by big names in nutrition and fitness explaining their thoughts on why the whole trend is so problematic. The main point that comes up time and time again is the fact that they can fuel “copycat” behaviour, encouraging a diverse range of viewers with different nutritional needs to eat the same way. (Note: it has become the standard in the influencing world that these posts come with a disclaimer that the posters aren’t recommending their diet for the audience to follow.)

For Charlotte Brown, head of marketing for a start up company, having details about other people’s diets made it impossible for her to not follow along. She would buy magazines that published the hour-by-hour eating habits of whichever celebrity was most relevant at the time, and she’d absorb the information into her own life.

“I wouldn’t always have the means to eat an exact replica of their day, but I’d follow their rules,” she says. “If they ate porridge every morning, so would I. If they stopped eating carbs after a certain time, I’d do it. If they had a late snack of 20 almonds, I’d eat 20 almonds before bed too.”

Charlotte notes that the need to copy someone else’s diet stemmed from internal insecurity, and she believed that nutrition could be a way to improve not just her body but her life. “They would always pick someone for this page who had a great job, busy life, and I guess it made me feel like if I followed them I would be like them,” she says.

Luckily, she found a personal trainer, Nancy Best, who helped her deal with her relationship with food, and she says that having a baby gave her a new appreciation of her body to stop caring so much about what other people ate. Of today’s rampant trend for these posts online, she says that “they tend to be posted by exceptionally beautiful women and the comments underneath tend to be from other women who want their body. But eating their same brand of sausages isn’t going to get them that and I think it’s wrong to sell your diet as a gateway to your lifestyle.”

This messaging isn’t even as subtle as Charlotte makes it sound. One of the latest trends coming out alongside the WIEIAD posts is body checking. That involves the creator pulling up their top to expose a flat stomach or six-pack abs, or making a 360 turn to expose muscular glutes before getting into the food part. It explicitly sells the idea that “this food is responsible for this body”.

Food as identity

It’s not true that eating the same way results in us looking the same. We all know that by now, so why does the trend for sharing days of food intake continue?

From the influencers side, the engagement probably makes it impossible to stop. A quick look at some who post these videos or photo slides on Instagram would suggest that they get more likes than other images on their page – even more so than selfies or body photos, which the algorithm famously supports. Many of the captions or videos on food diaries begin with them explaining that ‘this is my most frequently requested video’ – of course they’ll continue to create.

But maybe it’s not just about the reputational or financial benefit of those likes, but the reassurance. “I think the problem is there’s so much of our identity and our acceptance and our worth wrapped up in our food,” says McGregor. “Eating is no longer just about what you want. What you eat is about what you’re putting out there. It’s how you’re perceived in the world.”

And if you look at the comments on the posts, she’s right. A post that’s full of food people may deem healthy is flooded with comments about how the poster is aspirational. Meanwhile, messages under a more “realistic” post (as it’s often dubbed by the creators themselves) will sometimes include thanks or comparisons about what their body would look like if they ate like that.

The problem is that we are judging something we don’t even know is true. Are people over or under-reporting the food they eat to contort the image they put out of themselves? We’ll never know, but it can leave us sitting down at the dinner table feeling like we have to match their version of reality.

There’s a positive side to that, like the reminder that you deserve to eat a final meal of the day regardless of what you ate for lunch. But there’s also the negative side: you haven’t eaten enough protein, you ate a larger lunch than you’ve seen in most people’s reel, you ate first thing in the morning when everyone else is intermittent fasting. It’s impossible to look away when everyone makes their food intake a core part of who they are.

Images: Getty / Pexels

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).