Sara Sadok, an 18-year-old from the Chicago area, is an avid TikTok user. She’s very aware of how much diet-centric content ― and even pro-eating disorder content ― there is on the app, from “what I eat in a day” videos to celebrity posts promoting magic-bullet diet pills or lose-weight-fast diet fads.
“There are so many videos showing people how to lose an absurd amount of weight in a small amount of time,” Sadok told HuffPost. “It’s potentially triggering content. It’s especially heartbreaking to see young kids thinking that they need to lose weight in order to look like the man or woman in the video.”
Though Sadok has never struggled with an eating disorder herself, the subject hits home because she has a close friend who lives with one. So late last month, the teen decided to do something to counter all the toxic weight loss content on the app and encourage healthy eating habits instead.
In her “Let’s Eat Together” video series, Sadok invites those who may be struggling with an eating disorder to have a meal with her virtually.
“If you ever have a hard time sitting down for a meal, let’s have a meal together,” she says in her first TikTok video of the series. “I’ll take the first bite to make it a little less intimidating for you, and you can have your first bite after, OK?”
With a reassuring smile, Sadok cheers viewers on through more bites.
“I know that was hard, and I’m really proud of you. Let’s have our second bite together,” she says.
Now, other users are using the “duet” feature on TikTok — which creates a split screen and allows two videos to be timed to match — so they can eat with Sadok. In one video, a teen fights back tears while eating a meal alongside Sadok.
“You are such a beautiful person…..this really helped me today…one meal down,” the user wrote in the video caption.
In another video, a young woman talks about how she’s struggled to eat lately because of her depression. After seeing Sadok’s viral videos, she wanted to pay it forward with a “Let’s Eat Together” video of her own.
The premise of these videos may seem simple to an outsider. But for those dealing with eating disorders, the first bite can be an uphill battle due to the negative thoughts that often precede it, said Carolyn Comas, a therapist at Eating Disorder Therapy LA, a specialized outpatient eating disorder psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles.
“In that moment, your thoughts can be very loud and filled with reasons to not eat,” she told HuffPost. “Some eating disorders are due to a trauma with food such as choking, and there can be a fear of ‘What if I choke or throw up from eating?’”
Having someone take a bite with you and help you challenge those fears can be incredibly helpful.
“It shows the person struggling that their biggest fear is most likely not going to happen by eating that meal or snack,” Comas said.
Sadok said she’s taken aback by the feedback she’s received on the reply videos and duet clips that she’s inspired.
“Watching all the ‘duets’ is so heartwarming and really resonates with me because I never truly realized how much help I was,” she told HuffPost. “The most inspiring thing for me is to see the people who initially duetted my video to help them eat now creating videos of their own to help others do the same thing.”
Though online meal support is not a substitute for professional help, Sadok’s videos are well-timed to the pandemic, since many people may be cut off from their usual support systems and feel stressed about weight gain.
Meal support, whether it’s in a residential treatment center or in the company of supportive family and friends, is often the difference between someone eating and not, said Lauren Muhlheim, owner of Eating Disorder Therapy LA and author of “When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder.”
“Now, in the time of COVID, people are more isolated than ever and separated from many of their usual structures and supports,” the psychologist said. “It’s easy to see how having even a recording of a person like Sara cheering you on could be reassuring.”
For those in eating disorder recovery, making a virtual lunch or having a dinner date with friends over FaceTime or Zoom may be helpful, too.
Some dietitians and therapists who specialize in body image issues have begun to host free Instagram Live sessions to support those in recovery. You can find a schedule here and tune in every weekday at the designated times.
Comas recommends the Instagram eating disorder support group @covid19eatingdsupport because all of the content is vetted by a group of dietitians and therapists.
“It’s been widely successful because it is monitored by professionals to help reduce triggering content,” she said. “I think as long as there are trigger warnings, these eatalongs can be super helpful.”
And, of course, traditional therapy and sessions with dietitians can be useful as well. Social distancing means no in-person sessions, but online therapy for your mental health can be just as beneficial.
“Eating disorders thrive in isolation,” Comas said.
So if you’re struggling with eating disorders and body image issues, prioritize that social connection any way you can get it.