It's Time to Acknowledge the Ugly Side of Instagram's "Healthy" Eating Community

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of adults in the United States experience mental illness every year. That's a significant portion of our population—one in five people—yet the stigma and misunderstanding that surround mental health remain rampant. That's why in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we put the call out to our readers to share their own experiences with mental illness: their victories, their struggles, and what it's really like to negotiate a society that makes misguided assumptions about who you are based on an arbitrary definition of the word "normal." Our series My Life With highlights the raw, unfiltered stories of women who deal with anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and more, all in their own words. Below, Heather Ertel of The Glow Wellness takes a closer look at the flip side of Instagram's "healthy living" community—and how her feed led to disordered thoughts around eating.

My love affair with Instagram hit me hard about three years ago. With an interest in health and wellness, I started following some of the top Instagrammers in the space. Through them, I followed more and more like-minded people, quickly amassing a large following and an even longer Insta feed. Before too long, my feed was filled with images of triple-decker chocolate cookies stuffed with nut butter and decadent, layered smoothie bowls overflowing with granola crumbs and chocolate fudge dripping down the side of a beautiful mason jar. It was all picture-perfect, of course.

But soon, after staring longingly at those crave-able images in my feed day after day, I started wanting them. At first, I withheld giving in since most of these foods I deemed off-limits for years. But then, the resentment crept in. Certainly, my rational mind told me that this was exactly the action that Instagram was intending. But I wanted what they had, these cute girls on Instagram marketing themselves as “healthy” and “holistic.” And I began to think, Why can’t I eat this way?

Limiting foods like cookies, nut butter, and granola for years, I asked myself, How could these seemingly healthy, thin girls eat like this and still look so good? I was frustrated. I wanted to eat the chocolate-covered banana boat too, dammit. And I did.   

So these foods I deemed off-limits were now suddenly okay, even trendy and cool. I went from one type of disordered belief system around eating (ruling out all things!) to overindulging because Ms. Suzy Holistic Baker ate them every day, so I did too. I quickly realized how skewed the portion size and calorie count on these treats were, as evidenced by the scale of the pictures.

And then something else happened.