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May 15, 2021

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Camas fitness coach battles social media’s shaming, moralizing

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Kathrine Kofoed's TikTok videos about overcoming emotional eating have gone viral.
Kathrine Kofoed's TikTok videos about overcoming emotional eating have gone viral. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

If 400,000 people watching you reveal your deepest struggles with weight gain, self-control, and emotional eating on social media sounds like a nightmare to you, you might not be cut out to be a fitness coach.

Kathrine (pronounced Katrina) Kofoed, a 25-year-old health coach from Camas, poured her heart out in a 31-second TikTok where she discussed her four-year struggle with shame-fueled, disordered eating. The video went viral, with nearly 400,000 views as of this writing. Her other videos were averaging between 200 and 2,000 views prior to that.

The huge influx of attention to her account and her health coaching business, Passion for Plants, has been a financial boon for her by landing clients as far away as Australia. But Kofoed is equally excited about the opportunity the viral video has provided to spread her message: “Long-term behavior change does not come from a place of shame.”

In her viral TikTok, Kofoed spoke about being afraid to be alone with a bag of chips, and the fear of losing control of herself. Eating the “right” food became an obsession. And it wasn’t just about calories, but also her self-worth and identity. When she would consume something deemed “bad,” like chips or pizza or alcohol, she would beat herself up for failing. Breaking free of food-focused shame took years for her, but now she wants to lead others toward that same freedom.

“(The video) was me sharing my story of that struggle, and it gained a lot of traction, I think because it was extremely emotional and vulnerable,” Kofoed said. “Diet culture and (influencers) say, ‘You’re so bad if you ate this pizza.’ Not that the food was bad – that you were bad. A lot of people have internalized this mindset. Food carries moral weight now.”

Many Americans report they have gained weight during the pandemic. According to the research journal Obesity, 27.5 percent of Americans surveyed have gained weight since the start of COVID-19 stay-home orders, and the weight gain has come with a decline in mental health.

A cursory search of popular fitness hashtags on TikTok and Instagram backs up Kofoed’s point: Much of the language used on social media by fitness influencers is coded to communicate a food’s value morally, not just its nutrition. Phrases and hashtags like “clean eating,” “cheat cleansing,” and “eating right” are legion on TikTok and Instagram. This irks Kofoed.

“You’re not bad, not cheating. Certain foods are health-promoting, others aren’t, but you’re not bad for eating something.” She takes a deep breath before continuing. “Social media influencers have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re qualified to give you advice. I think we’re missing role models who can appeal to young women especially. I have not found any teens online who are promoting an anti-diet culture mindset.”

Kofoed is upfront about her credentials when she offers wisdom from her personal experience with disordered eating. She is certified by the American Council on Exercise, is completing a master’s in human nutrition from the University of Copenhagen, and has bachelor’s degrees in both biology and psychology.

“For me, I would much rather my audience and my brand promote that message of, ‘Let us look at your total well-being.’ Nutrition and fitness are crucial, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not the whole picture. Everything else – stress, sleep, hydration, mental and emotional health, habits, metabolism, genetics, hormones – all of those things are really important to consider outside of nutrition and exercise.”

So how should one go about getting healthy, stripping food of its moral value, and embracing holistic health? Kofoed says the answer can’t be distilled into a 1-minute TikTok or a quick Instagram video. Instead, it’s about the process.

“No. 1: Give yourself grace and compassion,” she said. “We have gone through a collective trauma this year, and extreme hardship as a global population. You are doing yourself a disservice by beating yourself up, shaming yourself, feeling guilty.”

That message likely resounds with the 71 million Americans who reported undesirable weight gain to biotech company Gelesis since the start of the pandemic.

After that, Kofoed says she gets back to basics with her clients: no foods are banned, and no foods are bad. She focuses first on adding fruits and vegetables to their diets before starting to remove foods that are “less health promoting” than others. She is careful not to describe foods as good or bad, and encourages people to eat what they want. While Kofoed herself focuses on a vegan, plant-based diet, she doesn’t necessarily recommend that for all her clients.

“At the end of the day, the way you build habits that lead to long-term behavior change is by making sure it fits your lifestyle, your desires and personality,” she said. “You don’t want to move forward feeling like you have to guilt or shame yourself into action.”

And finally, she encourages everyone to ignore the trendy strategies you see online, and to focus instead on what works best for you personally.

“Really think about not just what would be the healthiest, but what would work best for you. Then, get some simplified strategies that you can start with and focus on for the next two months,” she said.

A change or two, over a month or two, to build to a new lifestyle. This method is not as sexy or appealing as a video offering “five ways to lose five pounds in five minutes,” but that’s the point, Kofoed said. There isn’t a get-fit-quick scheme that works.

“That kind of video on social media, it’s harmful and it’s just not going to get you to the results you’re looking for,” she said.

Instead, she encourages everyone to build a process with small steps that lead to where you want to be, in both your mental and physical health.

“I take my background and expertise and show people how easy, fun and satisfying this lifestyle can be,” she said. “One where you feel good about the foods you eat, feel great about your healthy habits, and have overcome any obsession or previous struggles around food, weight and health.”