Your Instagram Feed Might Be Making You Sick

If your Instagram feed is littered with #wellness and #cleaneating posts, it may be time to rethink who you follow.

Scrolling through post after post of organic smoothies, colourful raw food bowls and beautifully-plated vegan dishes may seem pretty harmless.

But caution is needed.

A recent study has found a link between Instagram use and orthorexia nervosa – an obsession with eating “healthy” food. The higher the Instagram use, the more prevalent the symptoms.

Orthorexia nervosa is not recognised as an official diagnosis, but it does identify a genuine eating problem. Some of the symptoms include severe food anxieties and dietary restrictions. It’s important to highlight that an eating disorder is not just a lifestyle choice – it is a serious mental illness that can lead to permanent physical complications and can be life threatening.

Interestingly, the study found that while Instagram users had a link to orthorexia symptoms – no other social media platform had the same effect.

Researchers put forward three possible explanations for their findings.

First up: Instagram is all about pictures, which makes it an ideal platform for sharing food posts and therefore attracts a large healthy eating community.

Secondly, your IG feed is very limited. That is to say, you are only exposed to posts from the accounts that you choose to follow. So, if you follow a stack of fitspo accounts and you are being constantly bombarded with extreme messages about food and health, then eventually those messages will become normalised. Essentially, Instagram acts as an echo-chamber that could potentially be encouraging disordered behaviours.

The last reason is that users consider social media influencers as health authorities – especially accounts with large followings. That is disturbing. What it means is that thousands upon thousands of IGers could be following advice from a new generation of Instagram “celebrities” who have zero qualifications in health and nutrition. Some social influencers recommend the elimination of entire food groups! It’s important to make the distinction between who is an expert and who is not.

If a healthy eating post prods you to up your intake of fruit and veg or drink more water, of course that is a good thing. But when taken to extremes, such accounts could be doing more harm than good. We know that eating disorders are caused by a range of inter-playing factors – and this could be one.

So, how do you know if you’ve crossed from the realm of healthy eating to disordered eating?  The Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Is food dominating your life?
  • Are you vomiting after you eat or exercising a lot more than other people?
  • Are you finding yourself hiding food or eating in secret?
  • Does your weight affect how you feel about yourself?
  • Do you feel out of control when you eat?
  • Are you worried about being overweight?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you should talk to a trusted person in your life and seek support as soon as possible. Research has shown time and time again that the sooner you start treatment, the shorter the recovery process will be.

And if you are a follower of healthy eating accounts on Instagram, it might be time for a cull.

If you or anyone you know needs help, the first port of call is your GP. You can also call the Butterfly Foundation’s hotline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).


Steph works for the Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders, is studying psychology, formerly worked at ABC and triple j news. Dislikes wearing shoes. Tweets at @stephboulet.