Whether it’s nutritionally-balanced and creative lunch box ideas, a dish at a trendy restaurant, or the healthy smoothie you whipped up for your kids, photos of food are filling up our social media feeds like never before.
Yet if you’re trying to eat healthy—and feed your family better—a new study out of the U.K. shows social media can influence our eating habits, and help or hinder our efforts to stay on track.
The new study, published on February 6 in the journal Appetite, found people consume an extra 1/5 of a portion of fruit and vegetables for every portion they think their friends on social media consume.
Therefore, if they thought their friends were eating their 5 fruits and vegetables a day, they were likely to eat an extra portion too.
The study found that this scenario could go the other way too.
The study participants also consumed an extra portion of unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks for every three portions they thought their social media friends had consumed.
“This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realise when choosing certain foods,” study author Lily Hawkins, a PhD student at Aston University in Birmingham, UK stated in this press release. “We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices.”
HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN AFFECT FOOD CHOICES, EATING HABITS
For the study, researchers asked 369 college students to estimate the amount of fruits, vegetables, energy-dense snacks (potato chips, cookies, etc.), and sugary drinks their Facebook friends consumed each day.
Researchers then cross-referenced the information with the students’ actual eating habits.
Students who felt that their Facebook friends “approved” of eating junk food consumed significantly more of those foods themselves. Students who thought their Facebook friends ate healthy, consumed more fruits and vegetables.
So if we see our friends eating fruits and vegetables, we’re more likely to follow suit. Likewise, if they’re eating junk, it can make us feel that we have permission to do the same.
What’s interesting about this study is that like all things when it comes to social media, perception may not be reality.
According to the authors, the study participants’ perceptions could have come from the social media photos they viewed or simply what they believed about others’ overall health.
Therefore, if your friends seem healthy and fit, you may think they eat healthy too—whether that’s true or not.
What’s more, while the students in the study may have consumed junk, researchers didn’t find a significant link between their eating habits and their body mass index (BMI). Yet for the next stage of their work, they want to track people over time to see whether the affect of social media on eating habits has a long-term effect on weight.
Of course, it’s not only the food photos we see on social media, but food bloggers, cooking shows and videos that we consume—or can consume us.
Despite our love of food and eating out, most of us aren’t eating healthy anyway.
According to a 2017 report by the CDC, only 12 percent of adults consume the recommended amount of fruit and only 9 percent consume the recommended of vegetables.
When it comes to our kids, 6 in 10 children don’t eat enough fruit and 9 in 10 don’t eat enough vegetables.
The authors say the implication of the study is that social media has the potential to be used as a tool for us to “nudge” each other’s eating habits, and maybe even as a platform for public health awareness campaigns.
“With children and young people spending a huge amount of time interacting with peers and influencers via social media, the important new findings from this study could help shape how we deliver interventions that help them adopt healthy eating habits from a young age – and stick with them for life,” Professor Claire Farrow, director of Aston University’s Applied Health Research Group stated.
Of course, we know that food marketing and social media can both be influential forces in our kids’ lives—good or bad—so it will be interesting to see if and how this comes to fruition.
Ultimately however, the foods our kids consume and the healthy eating habits they learn originate at home, not a device.