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TikTok Diet Culture's Unhealthy Obsession With Protein

How wellness content online has become overwhelmingly "animal-based".

Over the past year, the internet seems to have become fixated on a singular ingredient: cottage cheese. From cottage cheese vodka pasta to cottage cheese ice cream, many creators on TikTok swear by adding cottage cheese to any dish to turn it into a high-protein meal. While it’s true that the food is packed with protein, the return of the cottage cheese craze (it previously took off as a diet food in the 1950s) is indicative of a larger shift in wellness content online— towards protein-obsessed and “animal-based” eating plans.

Tamika Turner, a 30-year-old content creator in Brooklyn, New York, says she’s recently found herself “caught up in the buzz” when it comes to protein-promoting content online. “I was putting collagen bone broth powder into actual bone broth and, at that point, you have to step back and tell yourself to get a grip,” she says. “If you have a history of disordered eating, focusing all your energy on eating high protein is like teetering on the edge of a cliff.” Turner says she now focuses on having protein in each meal, rather than aspiring for any daily high-protein goal.

While Turner may have found protein powder in bone broth to be her final straw, other content creators online are only upping the ante. Watching too many cottage cheese TikTok recipes can soon lead you into the dark world of animal-based diet “What I Eat In A Day” videos. From creators promoting the “lions diet” (where you eat nothing but beef, salt, and water) to eating dog food for extra protein, “meat-based” or “animal-based” diets are making their way from the gym-focused corners of the internet into the mainstream wellness world (after all, Kourtney Kardashian is promoting bone broth and Heidi Montag snacks on raw liver and bison hearts).

“I was putting collagen bone broth powder into actual bone broth and, at that point, you have to step back and tell yourself to get a grip.”

Turner says “high protein” has become the new trendy buzzword to replace “low carb”. In public spaces, “it's considered fundamentally uncool to care about how much you weigh, but the pressure to be thin hasn’t disappeared,” she explains. Now, a flip of perspective and a new turn of phrase is giving an old diet craze a new life in 2023. Instead of going “low carb” which people associate with rapid weight loss, she says, “our language has shifted to eating ‘high protein’ which people associate with building muscle.” Despite this, high protein content online is still extremely diet culture-coded as it encourages extreme weight loss for women and extreme muscle definition for men. There are creators turning to the “carnivore diet” after having “trouble losing weight” and others posting before and after photos, swearing that a high protein diet changed their entire body composition after only two weeks.

According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day should be eating at least 50 grams of protein a day. Despite what your TikTok algorithm may suggest, most people are meeting their personal goals and beyond. According to 2015 data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the average person in the US and Canada gets a full 90 grams a day, a fifth more than the recommended amount based on a normal North American adult weight of about 80 kg or around 170 lbs. This makes the push for increasing protein consumption not only extreme but largely unnecessary.

The obsession with “getting enough” protein overshadows how commonly many nutrients are under-consumed, like potassium, calcium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D, and more pressing and common health issues like heart disease (nearly half of the U.S. deaths are caused by cardiometabolic diseases are linked to poor diet).

Despite these facts, some wellness coaches like Beth Wilkas Feraco are using their platforms to posit that 50 grams of protein is “not enough for a garden gnome”. Although videos like Feraco’s with their mission of promoting heavy protein consumption can seem compelling in a 30-second clip, registered dietitian nutritionist Marisa Moore cautions against focusing on any food or nutrient group alone. “The current protein push is part of diet culture,” she explains, “Many of those posting about and following high protein diets are using it as a means for weight loss.” It’s not the health promoting idea it’s made out to be: “It’s another iteration of the same story. Eat like me to look like me,” says Moore.

Before this most recent protein push, wellness culture was focused overwhelmingly on “plant-based” eating. Circa 2016 we were inundated with vegan content from influencers promoting their habits as the pinnacle of healthy living which would rule for the next few years. Of course, this was also taken to the extreme. YouTubers like Free Lee The Banana Girl —known for only eating bananas— rose to prominence. Now, the interest in veganism overall is losing steam and the protein police are out patrolling plant-based “What I eat in a day” videos often commenting things like “you need more protein”. Some vegan influencers are even turning “meat-based”. This, says Moore, encourages unhealthy extremities in the way people think about food. “Extreme ways of eating are difficult to follow, unsustainable, and likely to lead to nutrient deficiencies,” she says. “Simply put, you can’t get everything you need from meat alone.”

Moore says that vegans can easily meet their protein needs armed with proper dietary knowledge. Vegan-friendly foods such as lentils can be an excellent source of protein, sans animal products. She also says that people who vary their diet (eating foods like eggs, beans, tofu, meat, fish, or poultry, alongside grains and vegetables) are likely already eating an appropriate amount of protein. Unfortunately this balanced approach is rarely reflected in the current wave of protein content online. The hashtag #protein has nearly 9 billion views on TikTok alone, while hashtags like #fiber and #carbohydrate have less than a billion.

“The current protein push is part of diet culture...Many of those posting about and following high protein diets are using it as a means for weight loss.”

There’s no denying that protein is an important part of any diet but it’s also clear that, by keeping us hooked on a cycle of moving from one obsession to another, the wellness industry is able to sell nutrients back to us that have been readily available for thousands of years (think protein powder and protein bars). For those who aren’t bodybuilding or on a medically recommended to be on a high-protein diet, this will be important to keep in mind as we weather the “animal-based” wave. Of course, after that, there will most likely be another nutrient or food group to obsess over. “I don’t see the protein push slowing down any time soon but I think the next frontier is fiber,” says Turner, “Information about gut health is all over TikTok and much of it is incorrect.” So be wary the next time a health hashtag crosses your path, as Turner says, “It only takes a couple of key influencers to start a new craze.”