August 1, 2023 - 5:00pm

In the vast landscape of social media, fitness and diet influencers reign supreme over all things related to the body. They tout images of chiseled abs, enviable biceps, and seemingly boundless energy, while extolling the virtues of various, often extreme, diets. These range from consuming solely raw meat to surviving on a diet of exotic fruit, or embracing long periods of fasting. 

Yet whether they’re advocating for veganism, carnivorous diets, fasting, or even “breatharianism, they’re selling an image of perfection that’s flawed at its core. When taken to the extreme, these diets resemble more faith-based religious asceticism than sustainable health plans. This stark reality is vividly illustrated in a pair of tragic and unsettling incidents involving fitness influencers Zhanna Samsonova and Alex Eubank.

Samsonova became a social-media embodiment of the raw foods movement — popular on both the political Right and Left, as there is considerable crossover among all these spiritualised food and lifestyle movements — and gained widespread recognition for her relentless promotion of a vegan lifestyle based on the consumption of exotic fruits. For seven years, the skeletal Samsonova subsisted on a diet of starchy jackfruit and foul-smelling durian. Tragically, this month the charismatic influencer’s life was abruptly cut short. Initial explanations pointed to a cholera-like infection, although starvation seems the more likely cause. 

In another disquieting development Eubank, a rising star in the fitness firmament, had a serious brush with mortality. Praised for his ostensibly holistic approach to wellbeing, Eubank amassed a considerable following on social media platforms. Among his preferred health practices was the act of fasting, often stretching to as long as 48 hours at a time. During one recent fast, however, he found himself in a precarious situation, resulting in an emergency hospital admission.

Such trends as lengthy fasting or extreme raw-food veganism have their roots in a paradoxical belief system, according to which extreme diet and fitness routines become paths to enlightenment akin to religious asceticism — rather than practical, sustainable and balanced programmes for improvement. Depending on the diet they’re pushing, influencers and their followers risk malnourishment, often leading to conditions like calcium and vitamin deficiencies, low B12 levels that can result in anaemia, nervous system damage, and heart disease. 

In any case, studies show that restrictive diets can cultivate unhealthy eating habits and challenging relationships with food over time. For example, starvation and self-imposed dieting of the sort in which Samsonova and Eubank engaged appear to result in eating binges once food is available, or starvation if the food never materialises. 

In this regard, the fitness influencer community, with its stringent belief system, bears an uncanny resemblance to medieval monastic practices. Caroline Walker Bynum, in her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, examined how women of the time viewed their relationship to food as religious communion. Many were believed to have performed miracles such as living without food for years on end, known as inedia. Just as these women tied their piety directly to their bodies, modern fitness influencers exhibit a similar fixation, presenting their restrictive diets as paths to transcendental health.

It isn’t only those who are in thrall to their fitness regimes who court danger. Consider the case of Brian “Liver King” Johnson, a prominent influencer who has amassed millions of followers by promoting an “ancestral lifestyle” and diet of raw organ meat and testicles. Johnson’s steroid use was exposed when his correspondence, outlining his $11,000-a-month performance-enhancing regimen, was leaked. Despite the exposure that his build owed more to steroids than red meat, Johnson’s followers remained unwavering in their faith. 

The recurring theme in stories like Samsonova’s and Eubank’s is the troubling faith in extreme dietary and fitness practices. The undeniable fact remains that a balanced approach to diet and exercise is the most beneficial path to health and fitness. Adherents of the philosophical golden mean reject extremes and focus on moderation. 

Rather than subscribing to extreme practices that are intended primarily to drive social media engagement, seeking a moderate path can lead to a lifestyle that doesn’t end with your sad demise going viral on those platforms.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work