Can Instagram Make It Easier to Recover from an Eating Disorder?

Social media has certainly received its fair share of criticism for fanning the flames of body image issues and eating disorders. Sites touting anorexia and bulimia as “lifestyle choices” — chummily referring to the pathologies as “ana” and “mia” for short — continue to crop up despite attempts by Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram to ban this content. Instagram even went so far to create an official policy that bans images or hashtags promoting self-harm.

But there’s still no shortage of images glorifying unhealthy levels of thinness and impossibly toned bodies (a.k.a. “thinspiration” and “fitspiration”). In spite of this, a growing community of people attempting to get past their eating disorders is offering a healthier voice.

Meet the “Recovery Account”

Maybe you’ve already seen a recovery account on Pinterest, Instagram or another social media platform, with common hashtags like #edrecovery, #bulimiarecovery, #eattobeatit and #strongnotskinny. Their purpose: to nix negative attitudes about weight and eating. Users do this by posting images of the well-balanced (not calorically restrictive) meals they’ve cooked or consumed as well as motivational slogans like “the size of my waist has nothing to do with my worth,” “ultimate goal weight: healthy” and “count the memories, not the calories.”

The hope, of course, is that anyone seeking virtual support might be more inspired by seeing people who practice self-care and self-love than those perpetuating self-abuse. Users and followers of these recovery profiles also claim the imagery and updates help smooth the road toward well-being. The accounts do so while preserving anonymity; most users don’t include their full names or photos.

Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and practices in Coral Gables, Florida, believes that recovery accounts evolved from and function much like food diaries. Long used by eating disorder treatment professionals, food diaries or journals require patients to write down every single thing they eat and drink to identify unhealthy patterns, track goals and monitor progress. Given that the majority of smartphone users can upload a photo of their latest meal to Instagram, real-time posts are now easy and a lot more visually appealing than jotting your intake down in a notebook. It’s also less isolating, Dr. Rosenfeld notes, since others can see and “like” what you’re posting, offering a potential new source of support to those with an eating disorder.

The Potential Dangers of Recovery Accounts

Still, some mental health professionals caution that because these accounts continue to focus heavily on food and appearance (even if both appear to be “healthy”) it may reinforce a pathological preoccupation — or worse, trigger others at vulnerable stages in their recovery.

“If people are so engaged in posting pictures of food, exercise or weight that they’re not getting out and living, one could argue they’re not reducing, but rather furthering, a harmful obsession,” says Rosenfeld. She also points out that a fixation on healthy food can still qualify as an eating disorder, what’s called orthorexia. A hyper-focus on all things edible is, in fact, a hallmark of eating disorders; which makes posts about recipes and food consumed potential fodder for fueling pathology. As symptoms of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia ease, focus on food should in fact should decrease. Someone who remains hung up on looking at, liking or uploading images of food might not be as far along in their recovery as they’d like to think.

It’s also worth noting that, so far, there’s no solid evidence these accounts contribute to the reduction of eating disorder symptoms, says Joanna Steinglass, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Center for Eating Disorders, in New York City.

There is one way, though, that research has indicated a possible benefit: Dr. Steinglass tested an approach called “exposure and response prevention” and has shown it reduces anxiety and eating-disordered behavior. Simply put, people with an eating disorder are shown the foods that make them anxious and they experience the anxiety these foods bring on, but they’re prevented from engaging in eating and/or exercise rituals that perpetuate self-destruction. Over time, says Steinglass, the anxiety lessens and those trigger foods become less scary. “The goal is to confront, rather than avoid, things that cause people fear, so that they eventually learn those dreaded outcomes don’t occur,” she explains.

Exposure and response prevention therapy should only be done under the supervision of a trained mental health professional. The client will need help processing difficult emotions and being guided through a severely distressing experience, and the therapist must fully understand the illness they’re struggling with. So while the process of uploading, commenting on or viewing images of food and healthier bodies may challenge users to think in a different, healthier way about weight and nutrition, it’s not the same thing as evidenced-based therapy with a credentialed professional.

Still, Steinglass doesn’t discount the added encouragement and support that these accounts can offer. She often points patients toward Proud2BMe, run by the National Eating Disorders Association, which she calls a great online platform for young people looking for inspiration and support. Her ultimate hope, though, is that anyone trying to overcome an eating disorder will first and foremost seek professional help. “An eating disorder is a challenging, difficult beast of an illness,” Steinglass says. “It’s unreasonable to think someone can just fix it themselves [using social media].”

Smart Ways to Use Social Media to Recover from an Eating Disorder

If you’re in treatment for an eating disorder and looking for a digital boost, eating disorders specialist Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld offers a few guidelines for ensuring your social media updates won’t get in the way of your health and happiness:

  • Keep watch. Make sure your recovery account isn’t eclipsing the time you spend doing activities unrelated to food. “The goal in any recovery process is to participate in the world again,” says Rosenfeld. “As someone moves through the different stages of their recovery, they likely would want to spend less time posting images about what they ate.”
  • Follow mindfully. Pay attention to the kinds of profiles you’re following across all platforms. “It’s always helpful to be surrounded by people who are doing a little bit better than you are,” says Rosenfeld. However, if you find yourself drawn to accounts that promote negative body image and/or more eating-disordered posts (i.e., ones that focus too much on calories and weight, or fixate on thinspiration and fitspiration memes) this is likely a sign that you need to pay more attention to your own recovery.
  • Track your triggers. The type of feedback you receive from your posts — and how you feel about it— can help clue you into how well you’re doing, says Rosenfeld. If comments show concern for your health or state of mind, or there’s a lot of chatter about numbers or efforts to maintain weight loss, this could put you (and your followers) in a triggering situation. If comments are causing you anxiety or making you feel unwell, having a recovery account may not be the best choice for you at this stage. And remember, these comments should never replace the feedback and advice of a trained health care professional.

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