On TikTok in the middle of the night during lockdown, I watched hours of videos that include: a dog that howls like a man, a Rube Goldberg machine made of bourbon biscuits and an update from a middle-aged man trying to quit fizzy drinks. And then I noticed that I was seeing a particular advert in among the videos very frequently, and one that jarred with the content around it. A thin, conventionally attractive woman talking to the camera about how she gained weight from “staying at home” recently, but then lost it again thanks to an intermittent fasting app called Simple.
Then I realised that I was being advertised other similar apps too, and I started to see the adverts on Instagram and Twitter. I asked some friends, and then some strangers, and found that a significant number of people, usually but not always women, have had their social media feeds carpet bombed over lockdown with adverts for these same apps.
Intermittent fasting, the practice of restricting the hours in which you eat to set windows each day, has been a favourite health regimen of Silicon Valley bros for a while, part of a trend for “biohacking”, or optimising the human body’s performance as though it were a machine. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, for instance, spoke last year about how he had been “playing with fasting”, and sometimes goes for days without eating at all. It’s also been favoured by celebrities. Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle company Poosh plugged an intermittent fasting app called Zero in a blog post recently, which also included tips like licking salt off your wrist to make yourself feel less hungry. But over the past year, a number of different companies have sprung up offering apps to help ordinary people fast, and started advertising intensively on social media, pissing a lot of people off in the process.
I have not enjoyed seeing these advertisements. My own obsessive food restriction used to centre around apps that allowed me to log and monitor my food intake, and those habits took – are taking – years to break. When I asked other people how they felt about these adverts, I got some strongly worded responses. “It’s deeply unsettling,” said one woman, “to see something advertised which helps and encourages you to disrupt your relationship with food”. Another woman, who is recovering from anorexia, said: “Every single one of those ads is an absolute body blow and I detest them.” Many more people, both with and without histories of disordered eating, spoke of the anger they felt at seeing the adverts, including people as young as 15.
The apps that appear most on people’s social media feed at the moment in the UK seem to be Simple and Fastic. The adverts vary: animated characters encouraging you to download, illustrations of the different types of belly fat a woman might have to lose, and the most uncanny type: first person, on-camera endorsements of fasting. Adverts on TikTok – a platform where 37 percent of the US audience are in their teens – are particularly integrated with the rest of the content. One advert, for Simple, begins with the actress whispering to herself “is it recording?”, to seem as much like unsponsored content as possible. Rose Lyddon, a graduate student, mentioned these adverts, featuring women with protruding collar and hipbones, in particular as being highly reminiscent of “thinspiration” posts, and therefore triggering. “That was the visual language of online ED (eating disorder) communities when I was a teenager,” she said.
It’s been documented that Instagram and TikTok in particular have a problem with pro-anorexic user-generated content on their platforms, but paid-for advertisements are another matter altogether. Ysabel Gerrard, a researcher into social media platforms’ content moderation policies around eating disorders at the University of Sheffield, was firm about how harmful this content can be: “We know that discourses like this are damaging, and at the very, very least they're triggering for people.”
I interviewed one of the co-founders of Fastic, Phil Wayman, and the founder of Simple, Alex Ilinski. I put it to both of them that their adverts were seen by some as irresponsible, and upsetting by many.
“I'm sorry to upset them: we don't say they should lose weight,” said Ilinski. Similarly, Wayman was apologetic, but only to a point: “Especially on social media, you get a lot of shit-storm for everything nowadays but we go strictly against starving. It's more like an eating window.”
Most of the apps are age-limited at over 16, but you can set your date of birth as whatever you like. I mentioned to Wayman that Fastic allows users to register as being 13 years old, and he was quick to assure me that this would be rectified in the next update. Each of these apps advises you to check with a doctor before altering your diet, but you can set your current weight and your goal weight at dangerously low levels. It’s also easy to find pro-anorexic websites and social media accounts that explicitly recommend these apps to pursue unhealthy weight loss goals.
The difficulty is that intermittent fasting is not inherently bad for you. Fasting for religious reasons is practised widely and safely all over the world. Both Wayman and Ilinski were effusive about the supposed health benefits of intermittent fasting, including increased mindfulness, energy and weight loss, and said that they continually seek the expertise of nutritionists. “We want our users to reach full consciousness about [nutrition], whether it means fasting or just balancing their diet until they find what’s best for their body and mind,” said Ilinski. It all sounds healthy enough, if a little obsessive in tone – I’m not sure why someone would want to reach “full consciousness” about what they’re eating. However, the benefits of fasting are far from a medical certainty. I spoke to two experts, registered dietician Aisling Pigott and registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, both of whom said that there was no large body of evidence that suggests intermittent fasting has any health benefits, weight loss included.
But the potential for these benefits allows these apps to market themselves as a health platform, and to trade on ill-substantiated medical claims. An advert for Fastic on TikTok claims that coffee prevents Alzheimer’s. Ilinski told me that Simple’s advertising only encouraged responsible lengths of fasts: “We don't tell you to fast for 24 hours, for two days, for three days.” When I pointed out that the company Instagram had posted admiringly about one of their users who had not eaten for over three and a half days, he admitted that this could “maybe” encourage unhealthy behaviour.
Aggressively marketing food restriction apps on social media contributes to an atmosphere of oppressive heterodoxy when it comes to body image. This is difficult for the 1.25 million estimated sufferers of eating disorders in the UK, and especially during lockdown. One anonymous woman told me: “Lockdown has been a nightmare for people with EDs, and promoting these apps just looks like preying on the vulnerable.”
There are plenty of people for whom fasting apps are useful tools for following a lifestyle that is not in and of itself dangerous. Fastic has amassed 4 million downloads. But these apps are wide open to misuse, and being marketed in irresponsible places and with irresponsible messaging, to people likely to misuse them. The responsibility for preventing this misuse lies with the app developers, but also with social media platforms. Adverts to do with fasting on TikTok, like all their ads, are supposedly vetted and age-gated, but the Director of External Affairs at BEAT, Tom Quinn, told me that “it is clear further steps need to be taken to limit the amount of harmful advertising” of this kind on social media platforms.
Perhaps we should just be reporting the adverts and moving on with our lives. But the issue, especially for people with burgeoning disordered relationships with food, is that a part of you is curious about what you’re seeing. I see these adverts, and a small voice in my head says “maybe you should use a fasting app”. These adverts may not all actively promote harmful behaviour, but they certainly contribute to the feelings that lead to it.