Social Media Is Influencing What You Eat

©. Helena Lopes

You're more likely to eat certain foods if your friends post pictures of them.

There was a time when meals began by picking up cutlery and putting a bite of food in one's mouth. Those days are long gone. Now a meal starts with picking up a smartphone, snapping a picture of the plate, taking a moment to post it to social media, and then – eventually – eating it. A 2017 survey found that a shocking 69 percent of Millennials take a picture of their food before taking a bite, and that number has probably only increased in the past three years.

Food photos are pretty, but not entirely innocuous. New research from Aston University in the UK has found that people are indeed influenced by the food photos that their friends post on social media and will make different decisions for their own diets based on what they think others are eating. The researchers gauged responses from 369 university students in their early twenties.

For example, for every serving of fruits and vegetables that a person thinks their friends are eating, they will eat one-fifth of a serving more. This number makes more sense within the context of the recommended 'five a day', meaning someone who's being influenced would make a point of eating six pieces of fruit or veg. Similarly, for every three portions of junk food that a person sees friends consuming on social media, they will eat an extra one. This suggests that, when we see friends indulging, it gives us permission to do so, too.

The researchers have suggested that social media could be used to encourage eaters to make better decisions. Study supervisor Dr. Jason Thomas said, "The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to 'nudge' each other's eating behaviour within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions."

While this may be true, the food situation is really no different from every other thing that gets posted on social media, from fashion hauls to hairdos to travel stories to home décor. People are always aspiring to copy what they see, and need good social media literacy skills in order to decipher between what's realistic and what's absurd.

And who isn't looking for food inspiration of some kind on a daily basis? It gets tedious trying to figure out what to eat three times a day, week after week, so no wonder people want to take the path of least resistance and eat what their friends are eating. Unfortunately, most of what gets posted is the special food – the slightly fancier, more time-intensive recipes or the attractively styled restaurant meals. Social media doesn't usually show the boring oatmeal breakfast, the late-night omelet and toast, the ugly salad. That's why I'd encourage people to broaden their sources for food inspiration. By all means, keep your antennae out for new ideas, but gather them from food mags, cookbook, store flyers, reliable cooking websites, and recommended recipes from friends and family.

The researchers' next step will be to see if social media-driven food habits are linked to BMI (body mass index, which measures body fat based on height and weight). Their initial investigation into this revealed no connection, but that could be because the study didn't last long enough.