A picture of gooey chocolate caramel black bean brownies received 2,235 likes, 118 comments and was seen by more than 30,000 eyes. This is the typical feedback for an @hungryhaley Instagram post.
Haley Hansen is a full time Cal Poly nutrition senior and a budding “instafamous” foodie blogger. She has 32,200 followers on Instagram and a food blog filled with hundreds of healthy recipes.
But Haley’s content is not all red velvet chocolate chip donuts or peanut butter gluten-free muffins. Hansen uses social media as a platform for opening up about her experience with an eating disorder. Her bravery and transparency on social media has gained Hansen an overwhelming amount of admiration from her followers.
Restrictions and control
Hansen’s passion for food started in high school when her interest in nutrition began. The summer after sophomore year left her with a lot of free time, which she used to read up on nutrition and run track.
Something that started out positive for Hansen quickly became unhealthy. When Hansen’s friends began sharing clothes with each other, she scrutinized her body size more than ever before.
“I felt like such an outsider because I was just a different size. I wasn’t overweight by any means, I was just slightly bigger than them,” Hansen said. “Being a teenage girl, you notice that stuff and you start to pick yourself apart.”
She increased her running to about 15 miles a week, primarily because she loved it, but also felt in control when exercising.
“I lost a little weight, people started to notice more and I gained some compliments. And then it spun out of control,” she said.
Within four months, Hansen lost 30 pounds.
Hansen had to quit track during her junior year when her doctor diagnosed her with orthorexia, an eating disorder that creates an unhealthy fixation on food and exercise. Hansen said being in control is one of the biggest driving factors when having an eating disorder.
Hansen rejoined the track team as a senior and was happy to be involved once again, but continued the cycle of restricting, over-exercising and undereating. Hansen would go on a run instead of eating dinner with her family and when track practice was not hard enough, she would stay after to keep working out.
After high school, Hansen said she felt positive and confident when she came to Cal Poly, although now looking back, Hansen said she was not in a healthy state. At the same time that her Instagram and blog rose in popularity, she became a vegetarian for six months and then vegan for almost two years.
Hansen said she enjoyed the diets until she lost even more weight.
“I didn’t even know that was possible. I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘This is not me, this is crazy. How did this happen?’” Hansen said.
sometimes I feel like all I talk about is eating disorders. while my relationship w/ food + fitness & my past with an ED do not define me, I can't just sit here & act like I am who I am today by coincidence ✨ that being said, let's talk abut ED's & veganism – how do they relate? if God hadn't blessed me with enough courage to step out of my food comfort zones & into veganism, my recovery wouldn't be the same. unfortunately, the air surrounding veganism contains a lot of ED-related concern. click the link in my bio for the full post! ❤☝🏼
Listening to her body
Confident that she could cope with the disorder, Hansen knew she needed to heal. It was an uncomfortable process for her, but she focused on regaining the weight.
Hansen realized that as much as she loved and respected veganism, the diet was another way of restricting her eating. Hansen said she knows not all vegan lifestyles lead to eating disorders, but found it was not the healthiest choice for someone with a pre-existing eating disorder.
With this in mind, Hansen quit veganism to stop restricting herself.
“I didn’t want to hold myself back anymore,” Hansen said. “[Now] I’m eating everything and I absolutely love it.”
Hansen reached a stable mentality where she could eat anything she wanted. She follows an intuitive eating style, which she describes as truly tuning into what your body wants. She fills her body with whole foods like vegetables, whole grains — and every once in a while, a doughnut.
Hansen said ridding herself of dietary restrictions and eating intuitively has helped her uncover a lot of underlying factors of her eating disorder that were still sticking around. She let go of fears that inhibited her from eating other things or fully enjoying being around people.
Hansen’s freedom with food and struggle with an eating disorder quickly made an impact on her followers.
“She’s been a huge blessing to me,” fellow food blogger Emily Swanson said.
After a few months of following @hungryhaley, Swanson invited Hansen onto her food podcast to tell her story.
“She is very humble, kind and passionate — it makes you want to keep talking to her,” Swanson said.
Swanson also dealt with an eating disorder and admires Hansen’s freedom with food.
“I couldn’t find any other accounts like Haley’s,” Swanson said. “She is a mentor to me.”
Hansen said she wants to lead by example for her followers and teach them the importance of listening to their bodies.
On the rise
It was just after high school when Hansen started posting pictures of food on Instagram. At first she kept her account private from friends and family, questioning if it was strange to post food pictures on Instagram. However, so many of her followers began asking for her recipes that she decided to create a blog. From there, her presence on social media exploded.
“It’s crazy to think about, because it started as something I hid from people,” Hansen said. As she sat on her couch wearing a white T-shirt that read ‘happiness,’ Hansen recalled that after a few months of posting on Instagram, Cal Poly Dining re-posted some of her pictures. It was soon after that food brands started reaching out to her, too.
When a brand reaches out to Hansen, she posts a picture or recipe with their product that the company reposts, resulting in more followers for @hungryhaley.
“I wanted to try everything,” Hansen said, admitting she was not as selective with brands as she is now. “I can’t even tell you how many protein bars I’ve tried,” she laughed.
so. pumped. ☝🏼️🔥💯 •• if you haven't heard yet, @squareorganics just popped out 2 new flavors – nuts + sea salt & cherry coconut! use "hungryhaley" at checkout for 20% off + free US shipping •• using these to celebrate my vegan-versary- one full year of being vegan 💃🏻 if I said I loved every minute of it, I'd be lying. it's been a challenge at times, but it's been so rewarding & healing. I'm amazed that God is working everyday through my passion for health & food to save not only me but others who are/have struggled with eating disorders. read more in my ebook (free to download via link in my profile!) 🤗
Her favorite brands to work with are Square Organics and Love Grown. She has also collaborated with other companies such as Hello Fresh and Panera Bread.
Hansen said she did not use any social media strategies or analytics until recently. Her following initially grew from connecting with people, being consistent and as authentic as possible.
Social media influence
Aside from her Instagram that is mostly filled with snapshots of recipes and new products, Hansen frequently updates her website, writing blog posts about her college lifestyle, eating habits and struggles with her eating disorder.
Looking back at the first year of running @hungryhaley, Hansen admitted she would often find herself comparing her account to “others”.
“When you are in that mindset of being insecure about what to eat, that [comparison] was probably the most harmful thing,” Hansen said.
After a few years of experience, Hansen has learned to use social media in a healthy way by not taking everything she sees on Instagram to heart.
Hansen has received dozens of messages of gratitude from other women and girls struggling with eating disorders.
“It amazes me and leaves me speechless all the time. It’s why I want to continue it,” Hansen said.
Hansen has also made several friendships through her Instagram account. One that particularly stands out to her is with Cal Poly alumnus Jeannette Root. Root started her own food account almost one year ago called @sweatysweetpotato and quickly connected with @hungryhaley.
Root was really interested in Hansen’s journey and messaged her through Instagram asking to grab coffee. After talking for three hours, the pair instantly became friends.
“I almost lost my voice and I’ve never lost my voice before,” Root said.
Root admires Hansen’s outlook on intuitive eating and says she has a positive impact on her life.
“Whenever I am struggling with not over-exercising and giving my body a break, she is really good at saying to do what’s best for you,” Root said. “She is definitely admirable and a great influence on people through social media.”
In March, the two food bloggers will attend the Natural Products Expo West together in Anaheim, California as social media influencers.
Hansen plans to continue her Instagram and blog during and after her time at Cal Poly. No matter where she ends up, she hopes to keep making a positive impact on others through nutrition.