The Internet Diet Crazes Where You Just Eat One Food
Only eating bananas looks great on Instagram, but it's definitely not tenable.
Image: Ian Ransley/Flickr
Happy January, Motherboard readers. Are you struggling to drag yourself back into everyday life, still steeped in your festive stupor? Do you long to feel healthy again? Has your gut distended with spiced meats, your cheeks blemished with mulled wine-induced acne? Reader, have you become part of the sofa?
January is the ideal time for an extreme internet diet. Why spend money on books, professional advice, and points-based ready meals when social media can provide for free?
Why even complicate the food itself? Just choose one food and eat it to excess, over and over. It works for mono dieters.
"Mono-ing" is a diet that has gained traction on YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram, in which you eat the same raw food—usually a fruit—in large amounts. The idea is to choose high-carbohydrate, low-fat wholefoods, with claims that mono meals give your digestive system a break from "alimentary multitasking," allowing it to "detox" and expend energy elsewhere.
Mono-ing's most vocal champion is YouTube personality Freelee the Banana Girl, a "fruititionist" who produces videos for over 298,000 followers. For Freelee, a meal on her "raw till four" diet (it's exactly as it sounds, eating cooked food only after 4pm) might be two whole pineapples, six mangoes, or 10 to 20 bananas, the fruit she espouses the most.
Freelee's diet has provoked endless YouTube comments and feuds with other vloggers, Daily Mail coverage, and even a Change.org petition to have her banned from the internet. Though her lean physique and relentless enthusiasm make mono-ing seem achievable, the reality of her day-to-day existence consuming crates of fruit seems unfeasibly restrictive (Freelee has even addressed accusations of suffering from orthorexia—an extreme preoccupation with healthy eating—in one of her videos).
I asked Sinead Quirke, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, about the trend for mono meals and whether they are dangerous. "We advise people to eat foods from the five main food groups for a very good reason," she said. "We'd never tell someone to cut one or several of them out, because they're all vital to your health."
Freelee is a fascinating combination of lifestyle troll and health evangelist. Her videos depict her as a fruit-fueled superhero, banana peels positioned behind her as angel's wings, stomach muscles displayed in a neverending series of crop tops. They cover every topic, baiting viewers with titles like "My bikini rant," "Freelee is a narcissistic bitch," and "How I got rid of my cellulite forever" (the answer, inevitably, is fruit). She operates as a kind of nutritional reply girl who hijacks other people's fame, targeting prominent YouTubers and celebrities like Jenna Marbles and "Fit Mom" Maria Kang, offering to "help" them shift to a fruit-based diet.
There is a disturbing, slightly pornographic aspect to videos in which Freelee consumes 51 bananas in one day, stomach swelling as she downs a flask of blended banana mush. It's never certain why people are watching: they can't all be dedicated "raw-till-four" fruitarians or vegans. Are they drawn in by her tanned, lean body and her wardrobe of crop tops? Are they waiting for her to keel over from potassium overdose?
The mono meal spreads beyond YouTube to Tumblr and Instagram, with the rise of the "banana island" diet, a "cleanse" endorsed by Freelee that consists of eating nothing but bananas (or grapes, sometimes, or melon) for weeks. It's a potentially antisocial "alternative lifestyle choice" made more presentable with photo filters, hashtags and poster girls like Freelee and Loni Jane Anthony; the draw of the mono diet seems to be as much about vividly hued Instagram pictures as it is about health benefits. Fresh fruit photographs so much better than cabbage soup.
The mono meal trend has a curious precedent that has similarly found a home online. The steak and eggs diet, often attributed to 1950s bodybuilder Vince Gironda, is now especially popular on bodybuilding.com, Reddit's /r/keto community (the low-carbohydrate diet beloved of weightlifters), and YouTube. In one video citing "bro science," a man explains it as a kind of culinary Fight Club:
1. Eat steak and eggs. 2. Repeat
The number of times he says "steak and eggs" is dizzying and hypnotic, as though all the meat and dietary restriction has somehow got to his brain.
This particular mono diet is as much about defining masculinity as it is about defined pectoral muscles. Controversial lifestyle guru Victor Pride of boldanddetermined.com endorses the diet, warning against "over reliance on science" and writing that "all men notoriously love red meat, bacon, butter and other fatty foods...The emasculated man eats soy, tofu, vegetables, grains and light fish—all of which science says are great."
Pride goes on to describe the role of fat and cholesterol in testosterone production, and how "BLUEBERRIES ARE NOT FOOD" (his emphasis) but a watery insubstantial snack. Gender becomes something to be performed at the dinner table, and real men apparently live on animal products alone.
The steak and eggs diet couldn't be further from the raw mono meal eaters, who accept blueberries not only as a food but as a meal in themselves. But the two groups share a message of consistent and rigidly simple eating: wholefoods, served in the simplest way.
It's pleasingly dramatic and brainless. It requires no recipes, just an Instagram account and a healthy amount of tooth enamel (just think of all those fruit acids…). It's the kind of thing you can invest in, carrying home crates of fruit to lovingly photograph and hashtag with #soblessed and #carbthefuckup to mine Likes.
The draw of the mono diet seems to be as much about vividly hued Instagram pictures as it is about health benefits
But its adherents protest convenience that little bit too much: we see Freelee walk her dog in the park while awkwardly munching on half a head of lettuce. One blogger apologetically describes compromising her Banana Island diet by adding spinach to her bananas, and shares nine increasingly desperate ways to vary your banana consumption by creatively slicing them.
And search engine optimization has a way of shattering illusions: the more of Freelee I watch, the more YouTube recommends I watch clips from voyeuristic extreme diet show Supersize vs Superskinny. Among the first results I notice when I google "mono meal" is a forum for eating disorder sufferers, where users with avatars of women's collarbones and quotes like "I'm not hungry" and "pray for bones" discuss the mono diet variations (mushroom soup mono, egg mono, oatmeal mono. A chocolate mono apparently exists too…). One post describes feeling constantly dizzy, another asks if it's ok to use toothpaste or if that will add calories, just like in that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa flirts with anorexia.
Quirke likened the rise of these online "gurus" to the celebrity names used to sell diet books. "These so-called experts–because you're a celebrity, or you're thin, or good looking, or just because you eat this somehow makes you an expert in nutrition? It's unfortunate that a lot of content online and in the media in general isn't regulated."
AS SOON AS WE FEEL LIKE WE'VE DISPELLED ONE MYTH ANOTHER ONE COMES UP
She continued, "People are vulnerable. They're desperate to lose weight, to have that perfect body that doesn't exist... I see patients every single week, I do media calls every week, and as soon as we feel like we've dispelled one myth another one comes up." Marketing terms like "detox" and "superfood," even the word "nutritionist" contribute to the deception: "They don't have to be registered, they're not governed, and you don't have to have a qualification. The only people actually regulated to give dietary advice are dietitians."
Books have historically presented this problem, controversy surrounding nutritionist Gillian McKeith's right to use the title "Dr" being one famous example. Online regimes manage to bypass doubt by relying on retweets, likes, view counts and follower numbers for credibility.
While there is perhaps something commendable about limiting processed foods, no amount of online support and passive-aggressive YouTube pep talks can make the mono diet tenable. Tumblr famously banned content labelled "pro-ana" which glorified extreme dieting and eating disorders, but the mono meal sometimes does exactly that in a deceptively prettified manner.
The protein content of a banana is about 1.1g, with daily protein requirements set at 56g for men and 46g for women. Contemplating eating that many bananas is more than a little bit frightening.