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May 15, 2023

TikTok's 'almond mom' trend calls attention to the dangers of diet culture

Mothers obsessed with thinness – to the point that they encourage unhealthy eating habits – place their children at higher risk of eating disorders, experts say

Parenting Dieting
Almond Mom TikTok Hayley Maxwell/Unsplash

The term 'almond mom' describes parents who beliefs and behaviors are rooted in diet culture, which idolizes thinness above physical health. TikTok users have used it to decry the dangers of restricted eating.

The label "almond mom," which stems from a reality TV show and has been showing up in TikTok videos, highlights the dangers of restrictive eating and the importance of parents that encourage healthy eating behaviors, experts say.

"The term 'almond mom' is used to describe parents whose beliefs and behaviors are deeply rooted in diet culture," Diana Winderman, of the Renfrew Center for eating disorders, told CBS News earlier this month.

The term dates back to 2014, when "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Yolanda Hadid was called out on her obsession with diet culture after she told her supermodel daughter Gigi Hadid, then 17, to eat "a couple of almonds and chew them really well." Her instruction came in response to Gigi saying she was feeling really weak and had eaten only a half of an almond.

The video resurfaced last year and TikTok users since have been making spoofs on "almond moms" to show what it is like to be raised by a parent obsessed with staying skinny. Videos using #almondmoms have received more than 127.8 million views. 

One TikTok user, Tyler Bender, who is 20 and has created viral videos, pretended to be an "almond mom" in one video by asking her child if she is "really hungry or just bored."

@tyler.benderr Your half an almond a day mom strikes again 🥰🥰 #yolandahadid #dietculturedropout ♬ original sound - TYLER

Bender told Teen Vogue that she was raised by an "almond mom" and that she tries to focus her criticism on the societal expectations that created these women – not the women themselves. She said it is important to remember that many "almond moms" were raised on diet culture. 

"The Special K diet and 'heroin chic' aesthetic and fad diets," Bender said. "Some of our mothers were on speed diet pills in the 90s."

Experts say "almond moms" send an unhealthy message to their children through their actions and comments: that it is acceptable to starve themselves in order to look thin. They mistakenly view it as a healthy behavior.

"It's important to understand that these people are likely projecting their own negative sense of self onto their children," Dr. Erikka Dzirasa, chief medical officer at Arise, told Parade. "They may have internalized the societal standards of beauty and pressure to be thin, leading to a preoccupation with weight and food as well as feelings of shame or guilt associated with food. They may very well be wrestling with their own body acceptance or they could even be suffering from body dysmorphia or an underlying eating disorder."

Of particular concern are the relationships between mothers and their daughters. These mothers can become very overbearing about what their daughters eat, and young women already are vulnerable to self-esteem and poor body image issues, experts say.

Eating disorder experts say people raised in diet culture are at increased risk of developing eating disorders later in life because they have difficulties recognizing the body's natural cues for food. Children of "almond moms" are at particularly risk of developing orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder caused by taking healthy eating to the extreme.

Too restrictive eating can lead to malnourishment and poor quality of life. People with orthorexia also are at greater risk for gastrointestinal problems, loss of bone density, significant fatigue, dizziness and cardiovascular conditions, like a slow heart rate. Women may develop amenorrhea, the absence of monthly menstruation.

"Perpetuating restrictive eating is really dangerous," Dzirasa told Parade. "An almond a day or per meal is not enough to sustain life, and it is actually quite dangerous. Inadequate nutrition and restrictive behaviors can lead to electrolyte and hormonal imbalances, hair loss, gastrointestinal disturbances, infertility and sudden cardiac death."

It is common for people with orthorexia to also develop anorexia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. When both orthorexia and anorexia develop, it leads to an obsession with the quantity and the nutritional value of food. Anxiety, a need to be in control and perfectionism are symptoms of both orthorexia and OCD.

The signs of orthorexia are not always clear to others because many people with the disorder have normal weights, experts say. The most important tells come from their behaviors. They tend to spend large amounts of time researching meal preperation and the health effects of food. They often develop a fear of foods that they consider harmful and may avoid social gatherings that include food.

Maija Broox Bruzas, a psychologist at Penn Medicine's Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, previously told PhillyVoice that a hyperfocus on nutrition, fitness, weight and appearance can cause people to turn to fad diets which limit large categories of food.

"Instagram and healthy food blogs can lure people in and then people can become obsessed with crafting the optimal diet and improving their health," Bruzas said. "Also, a lot of blogs have anecdotal reports about the benefits or harms of certain foods, which are not always based on solid research evidence – so people can latch onto false information and then drastically change their diet based on that information and become scared of eating foods they read were harmful."

Orthorexia is not formally recognized in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual and studies on treatment are lacking. People with orthorexia tend to be diagnosed as having another specified eating disorder, an unspecified eating disorder or an avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.

Mothers can support healthy eating in their children by serving healthy, balanced meals, but also by allowing the occasional treat. Experts advise parents to avoid talking about calories or weight and instead focus on body-positive topics.

"Parents are the biggest role model and influence on eating practices and body image," Dr. Karla Lester, a pediatrician and life coach for teens and parents, told Buzzfeed News earlier this year. "If parents have a diet culture thinking about food and body image, there is a lot of judgment and [it] brings restrictive eating practices into the family."

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