Popular social media food posts can influence people to eat healthy

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — If you can’t help but scroll through Instagram staring at delicious foods and delectable recipes, do yourself a favor and find some posts depicting appetizing and healthy dishes. Researchers from Aston University find viewing social media posts with lots of “likes” showing healthy foods promotes nutritious dietary choices in the real world. Who says social media has to be all bad?

The study experiment reveals people seeing fake, but highly popular Instagram posts featuring fruits and vegetables end up eating far more grapes than cookies (14% more calories) in comparison to other participants seeing fake posts featuring fattier foods.

Fitting in with the healthy eating crowd

In all, 169 people took part in this project. While the average participant age was 21 years-old, ages varied between 18 and 50. Some subjects didn’t see pictures of food at all, instead viewing stylish interior designs. Not all food posts had high “like counts” either. Across all scenarios, though, those volunteers seeing posts of healthy foods with lots of likes ended up making the best eating decisions when given a choice between grapes or cookies.

“The findings of the study suggest that not only exposure to healthy food images on social media, but those that are also heavily endorsed with ‘likes’, may nudge people to choose to eat more healthy foods, in place of less nutritious foods. What we see others approve of eating and post about eating on social media can affect our actual eating behavior and could result in a greater consumption of healthier meals and snacks,” says co-study leader and Aston psychology PhD student Lily Hawkins in a university release.

“One reason for this may be because thinking that others ‘like’ and eat fruit and vegetables nudges participants to alter their behavior in order to fit in with what they perceive to be the norm,” Hawkins continues.

Researchers conducted this work in the United Kingdom where, much like the United States, the majority of U.K. residents fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables each day. For example, estimates show that only 28 percent of English adults consumed the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables daily in 2018.

Social media: a billboard for healthy eating?

In summation, study authors believe their findings suggest social media can become a tool for dietary good. If people follow popular accounts displaying tasty, appealing healthy food options, they’ll be that much more likely to make better choices themselves in the supermarket. As a next step the research team plans on holding a similar study, only this time with real Instagram accounts.

“We know that social interactions can strongly shape what, when and how much we eat. These findings highlight the important role that social media has in shaping those influences online,” comments Professor Claire Farrow, Director of Aston University’s Applied Health Research Group. “The findings suggest that people do not simply passively view information about what other people are eating online, but that this digital information can shape our food preferences and choices, particularly when we think lots of other people like certain foods. It is promising that exposure to healthy foods, and likes of those foods, was related to greater intake of healthy foods.”

“Further research is needed to explore whether and how these findings can be translated into digital interventions to help support individuals who want to make healthier food choices, and to understand how social media platforms can be used as a tool to support healthy eating behavior,” he concludes.

The study appears in the journal Appetite.

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