The internet?s favorite diet has a dark side
Illustration: Jaeha Kim
Like kitten heels or mom jeans, diet trends have a Hydra-like way of resurrecting themselves. The low-carb rallying cry of Atkins dieters in the early 2000s eventually died off, then assumed its new form as paleo. In the ?90s, Americans faxed each other about the cabbage soup diet; in 2018, the Kardashians shilled for laxative tea on Instagram. And on it goes, despite a growing body of scientific research suggesting that dieting, no matter the name or frame, is not a sustainable way to lose weight or maintain that loss.
Perhaps the most surprising resurgence is the renewed fascination with a diet that?s been a staple in American culture for over a century. It isn?t keto or plant-based; it doesn?t emphasize clean eating or whole foods. It?s just old-fashioned calorie counting ? now known by its catchy acronym, CICO, short for ?calories in, calories out.?
CICO has exploded in popularity over the last two years, and perhaps nowhere is it more apparent than on Reddit.
Tallying one?s daily calories has been practiced since the advent of modern dieting itself. When physician Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories in 1918, it became the country?s first diet bestseller, according to the Science History Institute, selling over two million copies. In it, Peters included recommendations for target caloric thresholds based on weight, gender, and activity level, and a calorie directory of more than 100 different foods, from frankfurters to macaroons.
Peters? advice is more drastic than what?s considered safe today. And in an era when dieting and weight loss have seemingly taken a backseat to healthier ideas about body positivity and eating well, mathematizing one?s intake can feel at odds with our modern way of talking about health and wellness. It?s the stuff of rice cakes and Olestra chips ? a hallmark of a bygone era.
Still, much of diet culture continues to echo Peters? insistence on meticulously quantifying, and limiting, calories ? and in recent years, what was once a private endeavor has become, for many, a highly communal experience. CICO devotees can find plenty of hashtagged support from fellow acolytes on social media. Apps like MyFitnessPal, whose massive nutritional database makes it easy to find the calorie count of almost anything, provide online communities where users can post their meals and swap advice. And nowhere does this seem to happen with more zeal than on Reddit.
CICO has exploded in popularity over the last two years, and perhaps nowhere is it more apparent than on Reddit. In groups like r/1200isplenty (a reference to 1,200 calories per day, a threshold considered too low for most adults), dieters share recipes, calorie-shaving hacks, small victories, support, and commiseration. The subreddit?s 279,000 members also share photos of their day in meals, accompanied by caloric breakdowns and low-calorie snack suggestions. They offer advice for navigating college cafeterias (stick to the salad bar, maybe bring a mini scale with you) and dealing with critical friends and family members.
There is a cultish appreciation for Trader Joe?s, whose low-calorie prepared foods like ?reduced guilt? frozen macaroni, cauliflower gnocchi, and mini frozen wontons are frequently shared in users? hauls and have even garnered their own spot in the group?s FAQ. Across the subreddit, there is an abiding love-hate relationship with MyFitnessPal. There are lots of inside jokes. And despite the fact that not all calories are created equal, there is a fixation on numbers above all else.
Interspersed among the photos of salads are suggestions like eating flavored whipped cream straight from the can as a way to satisfy one?s sweet tooth.
?Buy a digital kitchen scale and track everything? is common advice for people who complain that they aren?t seeing results fast enough. (Like professional bakers, lots of CICO devotees prefer the accuracy achieved by weighing their ingredients, rather than measuring by volume.) There are also plenty of warnings about the hidden calories in things like coffee creamer, cooking oil, and salad dressing.
Working within such rigid parameters inspires some creative, curious, sometimes bizarre hacks. Interspersed among the photos of avocado toast, hearty salads, kale wraps, and zoodles are suggestions like eating flavored whipped cream straight from the can as a way to satisfy one?s sweet tooth (10 calories for two tablespoons) or dipping a whole carrot into a bowl of salsa and calling it carrot chips. (Posts like these have spawned a parody subreddit, r/1200isjerky, where users sarcastically worship Halo Top ice cream and ridicule the more extreme examples of their calorie-counting counterparts.)
Less common, but more troubling, are the posts that present a pile of raw broccoli and a diet Pepsi as a 99-calorie lunch, or talk about panicking as a daily count starts to come close to the 1200-calorie ceiling. Per the subreddit?s own rules, users aren?t allowed to encourage diets under 1,200 calories, but sometimes it happens anyway.
Those posts don?t go unnoticed. Even on r/1200isjerky, where most posts are lighthearted skewerings of diet culture, users occasionally express concern. In r/1200isplenty, the group?s administrators have taken a seemingly hard line against discussions encouraging disordered eating: ?We do not tolerate comments promoting eating disorder (ED) related behaviors,? reads a warning in the group?s sidebar. ?Please use the report feature if you see any of these.? (I messaged the group?s moderators to ask about how they define and respond to ED-adjacent posts, but didn?t get a response.)
Of course, any diet, whether it?s calorie counting or something else, can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. And one cannot spontaneously develop an eating disorder from looking at CICO memes and pictures of raw broccoli. But it isn?t lost on the group that the same principles that form the diet it espouses might also attract, and even enable, people obsessed with minimizing their intake, providing a healthier-seeming cover for dangerous eating patterns.
For those predisposed to eating disorders, any restrictive diet could easily tip the scales, says Dr. Steven Crawford, co-director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, a psychiatric hospital in Maryland. ?If you are an individual who would be genetically vulnerable to develop an eating disorder, these types of behaviors can trigger the illness to start,? he says. ?You could have the gene and go your entire life and never develop it, but dieting would be one particular precursor to leading someone down the path to develop a full-blown eating disorder.?
Even without a genetic predisposition, an intense calorie fixation could still push someone casually interested in losing five pounds over the line to more problematic behavior.
?The more rigid the diet behavior, the more likely we are to see disordered behavior develop,? says Stacey Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist in Miami who specializes in treating eating disorders. CICO is particularly ripe for obsession, thanks to its easily quantifiable definitions of success and failure. ?Counting calories is a pretty black-and-white diet behavior: Either you meet your caloric goal or you don?t,? she says. ?I?ve actually worked with individuals who?ve reported that their eating disorder symptoms began with the use of calorie-counting apps.?
If a diet has a tendency to trigger problematic behaviors, online communities built around that diet can make matters worse.
Overall, experts agree that a diet becomes problematic when it begins to dictate someone?s real-world functions and interactions. ?I haven?t met a single person who is calorie counting and tracking food that isn?t missing out on other areas of life,? says Rachael Hartley, a dietitian and nutrition therapist in Columbia, South Carolina. Hartley?s practice specializes in counseling clients in intuitive eating, a set of principles that eschews restrictive practices in favor of listening to hunger and satiety cues.
Like the other experts I spoke with, Hartley finds that restrictive diets can often serve as a source of anxiety and shame, and calorie counting in particular can fuel obsession. ?Getting numbers involved with eating can be incredibly triggering for those who are genetically at risk for an eating disorder,? she says. ?Even for those who aren?t, calorie counting can trigger disordered thoughts and behaviors around food.?
If a diet has a tendency to trigger problematic behaviors, online communities built around that diet can make matters worse. ?Counting calories, for an individual who is obsessive and perfectionistic, sets them up to consistently compete with themselves to get further and further down the path of eating less and less,? says Crawford. ?And getting online to share ideas and suggestions for how to lose weight in, at times, very unhealthy ways, really puts that population at great risk.?
A diet ruled by hard numbers makes for an alluring comparison trap: Seeing peers post about restricting their caloric intake could inspire someone to winnow their own diet down even further.
Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida, published an analysis of the correlation between disordered eating and media consumption in 2014. His research, which focused on teenage girls, found that competition with peers was a predictor of body dissatisfaction and disturbed eating habits ? more so than seeing idealized images of actresses or models. ?In our study, social media ended up being a space where [subjects] would compete with peers, and in some cases, that was associated with later body dissatisfaction,? Ferguson says.
And an online community dedicated to the shared experience of calorie counting is a space built for comparison. ?Dieting and weight loss accountability groups have a lot in common with pro-ana [anorexia] communities,? says Rosenfeld.
One Redditor made a similar observation last year, referencing a quarantined subreddit (one that?s had its visibility restricted by Reddit) where those with eating disorders share photos of the food they eat: ?r/EDfood and r/1200isplenty are the same.? And on r/ProEDMemes, a now-banned subreddit for those suffering from eating disorders, r/1200isplenty users were called out for being in denial about disordered eating.
?I hope you have the self-awareness to keep at an awesome diet and improve your health and fitness without falling into disordered quicksand,? one user wrote in a discussion about whether r/1200isplenty was a ?gateway? for disordered eating. ?It?s really fucking insidious and you don?t even notice it until something bad happens, like the frog in water? Keep a really close-ass eye on yourself.?
Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the home city of Stacey Rosenfeld. She lives in Miami, Florida.