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CW: This story includes content surrounding eating disorders and dieting.

Gone are the days of Y2K diet culture — at least on the surface. Two decades ago, with the assistance of tabloids and reality television, young, impressionable populations were exposed to disordered eating habits on a chronic scale.

Since then, the myriad ways in which we talk about how and what we eat have changed. In 2021, Google searches for "body positivity," an inherently controversial term, came in at record highs. Victoria's Secret swapped the "Fantasy Bra" for mastectomy ones. Even Barbie updated its offerings to center representation across body types and abilities. But that doesn't mean we've evolved out of diet culture altogether.

It's simply more veiled and reliant upon different language than in the past — often invoking murkily defined but wellness-virtue-signaling words like "clean." Today's hidden-in-plain-sight diet culture lurks under the surface of TikTok trends rather than being splashed across magazine coverlines, and the latest one involves chugging a goblet full of chia seeds in the name of productive pooping. Pooping!

Dubbed the "internal shower" by creators on TikTok, the execution of this viral trend is as follows: Mix two tablespoons of chia seeds, the juice of half a lemon and a cup of water before leaving the mixture to sit for 10 minutes until it's turned gelatinous. Then chug the whole thing and "shower" your digestive tract to help produce a bowel movement. It is, effectively, a Goop-ified laxative. And while TikTok swears it "works," by which I mean, clears out your intestines with the sheer force of an industrial aqueduct, medical experts assert differently.

"Overall, I encourage one to incorporate chia seeds into their diet, but there are a few things to keep in mind," says Samar Kullab, a licensed and registered dietitian nutritionist who herself has accrued a following of 610,000 TikTok. "Especially if you are a person whose diet is typically low in fiber, you want to increase your fiber intake slowly to avoid bloating and possible constipation."

That's because chia seeds — superfood nutritional powerhouses — have a lot of fiber. Beyond being high in all sorts of vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and phosphorus, they're able to absorb water to form a gel that softens and moistens your stools so it glides through your intestines. Kullab tells me the recommended daily amount of soluble (i.e. able to be dissolved in water) fiber is 25 to 30 grams, while a single tablespoon of chia seeds comes in at 5 grams.

Where the internal shower goes astray is not in the actual drink itself, or the use of chia to quickly "flush" (sorry) out one's insides. The concern raised by dietary professionals is that — like so many things on TikTok — it's being marketed as a one-size-fits-all, quick-fix solution when, really, it's to be consumed with caution, if at all.

"As much as the internal shower can be a great natural remedy for constipation and digestion, it can become incredibly unhealthy if used as part of diet culture, turning into a substitute for balanced meals," explains Nina Julia, founder and chief editor at CFAH, a platform for accessible and trustworthy health and wellness information. "Many doctors have warned people to only partake in the trend if they are doing so in a safe way, incorporating it as an addition rather than a replacement."

At press time, videos under the "#internalshower" and "#internalshowerdrink" hashtag had accrued a combined total of 85.5 million views, a significant portion of which were allocated to clips peddling it as a weight-loss or detox ploy. Among the top-liked videos is one from a creator with the handle @jasminerichae_, captioned, "Flat Tummy in a Week," in which she instructs followers to "drink this every morning before breakfast."

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"Me on here trying to find a way to lose my belly from 22 years ago in a week," wrote one commenter. "It works it also helps you stay full," wrote another. And finally: "Should I do this only on the weekends cause I gotta go to work and I'm not tryna tear up these ppl bathroom."

Well, should you? Ideally, according to a group of dietitians on TikTok facing off against these viral videos, at least, you shouldn't at all.

"How is this supposed to stimulate your bowels? For two tablespoons [of] chia seeds, you get a whopping 10 grams fiber, the bulk of which is insoluble and literally add bulk to your stool, promoting irregularity," said registered dietician Charlotte Martin in a video posted last month.

Get this, she explained: The average American eats only 16 grams of fiber a day. So if you're the average American, this will give you more than 60% your average intake. Could this help move things along? Yes. But, as she asked, "could it also bloat you, back you up more or do the opposite and give you the runs? Also yes."

Potentially unhealthy medical consequences aside, critics have also raised concerns that the internal shower is nothing more than a fad diet, camouflaged in "clean" lifestyle fatigues. For someone like Ruthie Friedlander, co-founder of The Chain, a peer support group for women in fashion who are struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder, this is personal.

"One of the first things I had to re-learn during treatment was simple facts about how your body works," she tells me. "We are conditioned to think that 'clean' is best — clean home, clean body, clean mind — and that word in and of itself is extremely triggering to most people with an eating disorder. It took me a year to truly understand the simple fact that our bodies are actually built to 'clean' themselves."

Attempting to "detox," in any form, she adds, is simply a marketing ploy, unless one is detoxing from drug or alcohol abuse. "What I learned in treatment is that our bodies have kidneys, a liver, skin and lungs that are constantly detoxifying," she says. "There is literally no known way — not through a diet, not through a colonic, not through a sweat lodge — to make your body detoxify 'better.'"

We've seen this before — with the infamous lemonade "Master Cleanse" of the aughts, with the intermittent fasting embraced by sentient Patagonia vests in Silicon Valley, with the three-figure juice cleanses thought to "refresh" your system. And while the internal shower is only one drink, the intention is the same. It's detox culture cloaked as a wellness regimen. Even worse, laxative abuse is a type of bulimic purging, but rather than ridding the colon of calories, as intended, laxatives can in actuality clear out water, vital minerals and electrolytes — which bodies need to function properly.

"I always tell people that, although there's very little scientific proof that detoxes yield any positive results and in fact may be quite harmful, it's absolutely a personal choice whether or not to engage," says Christina Grasso, Friedlander's co-founder. "That said, the widespread sharing of this information online normalizes a dangerous trend and potentially disordered beliefs which can be catastrophic for many."

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