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You Are What You See Other People Eat

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The emphasis of social media and online sharing has its share of promoting poor body image and bad habits, but a recent study shows that it can actually help promote positive habits–if you're following the right friends.

Published in the journal Appetite, researchers focused on what attitudes people receive from watching friends either eat healthily or non-healthily on Facebook.  They surveyed 369 college students to report how much of each food group they believed their Facebook friends ate, including snacks and sugar-heavy beverages.

Then the students were surveyed about their own eating habits.  Both sets of information were cross-referenced and showed that the perception of social group eating habits influenced the individual's eating habits.  Students who gathered the impression that their friends ate a lot of unhealthy snacks and junk food felt it was socially endorsed, and they consumed more unhealthy food themselves.  University students, who felt that their friends ate junk food, ate approximately 1/3 more of processed, junk food snacks.  Conversely, students who felt that their friends shared more healthy eating habits also ate better themselves–eating 1/5 more of a fruit or vegetable portion.

The next phase of research that the team at Aston University's School of Life and Health Sciences wants to focus on is trying to track the study participants for a period of time to see the long-term results that social media is impacting on those who use it.

With the large amount of time spent online watching people and getting glimpses into their private lives and even meals, choosing to follow people who are worthy of role-model status is more important than ever.  Especially due to the use of social media by younger and younger populations, making sure they understand just how influential seeing posts and photos of meals can be is an important talking point.  We can't control what our friends post on Facebook, but we can choose to follow one or two healthy role models.

The insight gained from this study reinforces the point that the habits which we see on social media influence us, even down to what we chose to reach for when we are hungry.  It can be important to monitor your “visual consumption” as closely as your physical consumption if you’re trying to adjust your own eating habits or follow a particular plan or nutrition pattern.  It can also make you more successful–we know that when you join online forums for healthy eating/structured nutrition plans, knowing that other people are going through the same things you are can make a big difference in how supported we feel during our own choices.  This can consequently make it easier to sustain in the long-term.  However, exposure to the wrong types of ‘sharers' can tip people over into eating disorders, including the lesser-known types of disorders that are disguised as healthy eating (such as orthorexia).

The study points out that social media can be used a tool to help people recognize better eating habits from following people who eat healthily, but it must be balanced.  It can't swing into the territory of food-shaming those who don't have healthy eating habits. 

Instead, it may be a good idea to take social media breaks if the type of food-related posts your friends are sharing aren't matching up to your current goals, rather than labeling your friends' eating habits as unhealthy or damaging.

Guilt about eating habits is very counter-productive to teaching people about nutrition; it’s always better to teach by example.  Being able to tune in to what other people are eating and sharing online with us can be a valuable tool in understanding why we're eating the way we are.

References

Lily K. Hawkins, Claire Farrow, Jason M. Thomas. Do perceived norms of social media users’ eating habits and preferences predict our own food consumption and BMI? Appetite, 2020; 149: 104611 DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2020.104611

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