Evidence of Dysfunctional Eating Behaviors in Content Analysis of Healthy Living Blogs

by Sarah on February 18, 2014 · 11 comments

Y’all know by now I spend a lot of time on Google scholar. The world of a PhD student IS research and a constant reiteration of the phrase “according to the literature” (or some variation thereof).

Y’all also know I have been very interested in–and am currently analyzing the results of my eating and blogging behavior surveythe way that blogging and social media use affect our health behaviors.images-377

Every now and then, I will type in “healthy living blogs” to the Scholar search engine, just to see if anyone else out there is publishing. Imagine my surprise (and quick insertion into my own study’s literature review) to discover that just last month, in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, a study* was published out of the University of South Florida revealing the results of a coded content analysis of 21 of the most popular Healthy Living Blogs?

(Before you ask: no, the actual blogs that were studied were not named. However, they were the most visited blogs of the sample that had won a health-related award during the previous year, and were all written by women who were NOT RDs, nutritionists, personal trainers, or other formally trained health/fitness professionals.)article 3

The investigators were interested in laying groundwork for future research by analyzing blogs in this community based on not only the legitimate health, fitness, and nutrition information presented, but also evidence of disordered eating and exercise-related behaviors and attitudes.

Coding is a research technique that allows for quantifying observational data. It’s often used when analyzing videotapes of human interaction in a lab or other naturalistic studies; it can, as in this study, also be used to assess large amounts of written documents or visual presentations. For this study, the investigator use “constructed week” sampling, which is a randomized selection of blog entries from the entire year to create a generalizeable ‘week in the life’ of that blog. The entries from that constructed week and also any “About Me” pages were coded and analyzed, along with given demographic information.

The variables that were assessed and coded were divided into four categories: appearance (exercise images, beauty, self-objectifying phrases), thin appearance-ideal (fat stigmatization, thin praise), disordered food/nutrition (guilt-inducing messages, food substitution, dieting, restraint), and health (medical information, general topics, health histories). These variables were chosen from previous research that assessed media presentations of dysfunctional behaviors and research regarding diet mentality and disordered eating.

Results showed a high prevalence of appearance, thin-ideal, and disordered food messages being shared, and very little by way of actual health information.

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I am sharing this with y’all not to poke fingers or place blame. I’m sure if I went back and coded my own blog, I’d find much of the same. The purpose of knowing this, however, is to recognize that we may be normalizing behaviors that–according to research–actually have the potential to be quite unhealthy. 

Just some food for thought.

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The study, if you can get access to it:

*Boepple, L., & Thompson, J. K. (2014). A content analysis of healthy living blogs: Evidence of content thematically consistent with dysfunctional eating attitudes and behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz @ I Heart Vegetables February 18, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Wow that sounds like a really interesting study. It’s kind of sad to think about the type of influence people have, without any formal training :(

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Melissa @ Treats With a Twist February 18, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Which is why it makes my skin crawl when I can tell that a blogger is being influential to a large group of vulnerably minded women, and yet she is not delivering information in the most … sensitive manner. Not making it clear that she isn’t a licensed/train professional, not making it clear where she’s getting her information that she’s passing on to her readers, not making it clear when she’s just saying her opinion or what she THINKS she should be eating/doing based on personal opinion…
It’s all very touchy when you know your readers are desperate to hear a means to success.

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lindsay February 19, 2014 at 7:39 am

eek yes, what Melissa said. But thank you for sharing this. Always good to know where we are being influenced.. Healthy or not!

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Heather @ Better With Veggies February 19, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Okay, just curious, but why is showing restraint around nutrition a disordered symptom? I totally get deprivation, but restraint seems like a positive to me (like choosing to eat nutritious options, instead of mac n cheese every meal?).

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Sarah February 20, 2014 at 10:28 am

Thanks for pointing that out. As I wrote the post, I thought I might want to elaborate a bit on the “academic” and “research” terminology, because it is different than the common descriptions we often use. Restraint IS good, when it involves choosing healthier options, etc. In “the literature” and with eating behavior-related research, it is often used in the sense of ‘restriction,’ which on its own may not always be a horrible thing either (although caloric restriction does not lead to long-term weight loss, but may be important for people who truly have lost control of their ability to eat naturally), but has been shown in research to be a VERY strong indicator of eating related issues and disordered attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

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Brittany @ Delights and Delectables February 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm

You know I eat this stuff up….

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Marisa @ Uproot from Oregon February 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Thanks for sharing! I was recently interviewed for another healthy living blog study based out of Toronto, and she asked me a lot of questions in regards to how bloggers food choices/exercise/self image affect my own. It was the first time I’d really taken the time to think about it, and I definitely would consider pursuing this later on within nutrition/public health!

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Kaila @healthyhelperblog! February 20, 2014 at 7:56 am

This is absolutely fascinating. Cannot wait to read the full article!

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Meghan@CleanEatsFastFeets February 20, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Thank you for sharing. I will say I’m not entirely surprised by the findings, although I am curious about what message is being conveyed with my blog. I certainly would want to steer anyone in the wrong direction, but it’s always possible our actions, or words in this case, can have consequences, entirely outside of what we had intended. I also think if you don’t see the disordered behavior in yourself, you don’t realize that’s the message your sending. Food for thought, literally. Fascinating stuff.

PS If you ever see me sending the wrong message (outside of inappropriate sexual references because I do those all the time), please feel free to shoot me an email and mention it. That’s actually one of the benefits of being older. You learn you are not always right, nor is there only one right way to do something.

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Mollie @Sprinkles of Life February 27, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for sharing. So interesting. Being in the world of research, I love seeing things like this and also, being that health and nutrition is an interest and passion of mine, I love seeing stats on this topic. And am so interested in the results and what the trend of “healthy living blogs” is really doing to our thoughts and self-esteem. People are just so dang influential in general, adding all these comparison traps just adds to it. Can’t we all just be secure, happy women?!?! Easier said than done, huh?? ;)

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Anne March 19, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Just caught this… I’m not surprised. I’ve been distressed by the number of blogs I’ve seen that identify themselves as “Healthy” but then discuss what seems (to my unprofessional eye) to be disordered behaviour. And most have a very strong emphasis on thin appearance.

They have to eat less, and run more, and they are upset that they were told the “Wrong” things to do, so they’re not thin enough, but now they have found the Grail of doing whatever they are doing that has worked for weight loss for a month (and will stop working in a couple of months…) but, meanwhile, they’re grabbing this non-meal to eat on the fly… and they all encourage each other to do the same. And it concerns me.

But if that’s what everyone you know is doing, it’s easy to see it as reasonable.

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