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October 4, 2010

The Hunger Diaries: How Health Writers Could Be Putting You at Risk

Six popular bloggers advocate healthier living, but are they putting readers — and themselves — in danger? We want to hear all sides of this debate. Please visit our new Hunger Diaries Forum to see what women (and men!) around the web have to say, and add your voice to the discussion.

ipad with plate, silver ware, and water

Photo Credit: Stephen Lewis

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This past August, 200 women descended on the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago for a "Healthy Living Summit." The weekend conference, the second annual convention for members of an insular food- and fitness-obsessed blog world, was organized by the community's photogenic young founders: Kath Younger (who blogs at katheats.com), Tina Haupert (carrotsncake.com), Meghann Anderson (graduatemeghann.com), Caitlin Boyle (healthytippingpoint.com), and Heather Pare (hangrypants.com). (A sixth founder, Jenna Weber, who writes eatliverun.com, was absent.) Dubbed the "Big Six" by fans, the women hail from all over the U.S. Younger is a registered dietitian, and most of the others have day jobs. But online, the women are cyber-celebrities whose wholesome personas and fitness advice generate hundreds of thousands of monthly page views, attracting a rapt reader base that's caught the eye of big food and wellness corporations.

Those companies—including Stonyfield Farm, Quaker Oats, Arnold, and Oroweat—are wooing the Big Six, hoping to score mentions online and reach their readers: a gold mine of young, educated women hell-bent on achieving sylphlike physiques. Publicity-hungry sponsors offer the bloggers travel, swag, and cash, even ponying up $49,000 for the Summit to cover the organizers' airfare and hotels, an opening-night cocktail party, catering, and conference space.

Now the blogs are even turning the women into national brands. Haupert and Weber have book deals with Sterling Publishing; Boyle's body image guide, for Gotham Books, came out in August. Haupert writes for health.com and Weber and Anderson offer "slimspiration" tips in magazines. Between book advances, sponsorships, and royalty checks from online aggregators (netting Anderson around $10,000 a year), the women are cashing in on mainstream success—even though only one has university-level nutrition training.

But behind the cutesy titles and sloganeering (Summit motto: "Bloggers for a Balanced Lifestyle") lies an arguably unhealthy obsession with food, exercise, and weight. The blogs' pages of meticulous food photographs and descriptions are often updated several times a day and immediately dissected by readers. A typical morning post documents breakfast with a photo and description—say, a smoothie of raw spinach and rice milk—followed by an afternoon report on the day's herculean exercise and an evening update on perfectly portioned snacks and dinner. Pare once chased a 10-mile run with a flourless, low-fat, black-bean "brownie." Boyle ran 22 miles and, after a day of light eating, signed off with, "I am so hungry!"

Several of the women were out of shape in college and lost weight after graduation, an experience ecstatically detailed on Boyle, Younger, and Anderson's blogs. The sites feature weight-control tips and even cover "food sabotage" (spoiling treats to avoid eating them). Weeks before the 2009 San Diego Marathon, Anderson ate some coconut mousse cake, then destroyed the rest. Younger, who wrote about netting out at 1,100 calories one day, trying to maintain her "happy weight," has described pouring salt on desserts after one bite. In a post about whether this kind of food destruction was "disordered eating," Pare recalled trashing an entire batch of cookies after craving "just one more."

At the Chicago Summit, fruit and fat-free yogurt vanished from the catered breakfast buffet; mini croissants and mini muffins languished. "We told them not to serve that stuff," said Boyle of the carbs. Several women there appeared emaciated. Despite training for a December marathon, Boyle ditched her breakfast dish—piled with fruit, bagel thins, and fat-free yogurt—after a few bites. Later, she posted a picture of her full plate online, raving about the "amazing" food.

Many of the bloggers post their heights and weights and share weight-loss goals and eating plans. On Pare's site, a debate exploded over whether her "typical day of eating"—including servings of oats, peanut butter, flax, and a mini Lärabar—was "a lot." Occasionally, the women describe desserts or frosty mugs of beer, but New York—based sports nutritionist Marissa Lippert is skeptical. "I'm concerned they're touting treats but not comfortable enjoying them because of their extreme mentality and low body weights," she says. Last year, Anderson blogged that she lost her period thanks to what her doctor said was "amenorrhea due to my intense, high-mileage running"—a red flag for low body fat and a risk factor for osteoporosis, says Lippert. Assessing Anderson's posts during marathon training, Lippert estimates Anderson ate about 1,400 calories a day—600 to 800 under the minimum she needed, based on her training.

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