How Does Social Media Affect Eating Habits?

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In a relatively short amount of time, social media has revolutionized so much about the way we live. Amidst big-picture changes to things like relationships and work, one often overlooked area of social media’s influence is our diet.

For good or bad, the way we feed our minds through social media affects how we feed ourselves in real life. As Americans spend increasing amounts of time on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (an average of 2 hours and 3 minutes per day), we can’t help but be influenced by the messages these social platforms convey about food.

In fact, a 2020 study found that people’s perceptions about how many fruits and vegetables other Facebook users ate correlated with the number of fruits and vegetables they themselves ate. And amounts of apples and broccoli are, of course, not the only thing social media can normalize for us. Our regular intake of social scrolling gives us a sense of what’s normal or appropriate for everything from portion sizes to body sizes.

So can you eat well under the influence of social apps? Here are some pros and cons of social media’s effects on eating, plus a look at how to curate a healthy feed.

Potential Benefits of Social Media

We’ve all heard the doom-and-gloom reports about the ways social media negatively impacts us. But, done well, keeping up with your favorite accounts may actually bring positive outcomes.

Encourages and Inspires

On social media, there’s a fine line between aspirational and outright unrealistic, but when you follow people who provide a healthy model, you may feel empowered toward positive change. Try subscribing to people whose diets or fitness levels you admire (but who are honest about their own challenges).

Provides Valuable Skills and Information

Want to learn to cut a pineapple the right way? There’s a YouTube video for that. Need a one-month low-sodium meal plan? Pinterest is your friend. It’s never been easier to access information that’s right for your own unique dietary needs via social media.

Creates A Positive Food Community

One beauty of social media is its ability to bring together like-minded people. Whether you’re a tropical fruits enthusiast or are trying a low-carb diet for the first time, you can easily find others in the same position on online platforms. And when you’ve found “your people,” you may feel encouraged to stay the course for better health. A 2016 study, for example, found that people who made more connections with others in an online weight management community lost more weight.

Exposes You To New Things

Gone are the days when trying a new recipe meant digging out a stack of cookbooks. Now, with a few clicks, social media platforms have the power to expose us to new recipes, ingredients, and even new ways of thinking about food.

Subscribe to cooks from around the world, and you might be inspired to seek out an ingredient you’ve never tried. Alternatively, check out an Intuitive Eating dietitian’s philosophy for a more mindful approach to food.

Potential Drawbacks Of Social Media

Despite its potential for good, social media has some negative drawbacks, too. As you spend time on various platforms, be aware of these potential downsides.

Distracted Eating May Lead To Overconsumption

It’s not always the content of social media that can be detrimental to eating habits—it’s the practice of scrolling itself. Distracted eating (usually) means overeating. A 2013 meta-analysis of 24 studies indicated that when people didn’t pay attention to their meal, they ended up eating more of it.

In another study from 2020, distracted eating actually led people to eat less—but they also enjoyed their food significantly less. Putting down the phone, tablet, or computer while eating is always a good idea.

Creates Unrealistic Beliefs And Expectations

Let’s be honest: social media isn’t exactly known for setting realistic expectations. Both influencers and individuals can use online platforms to showcase the best and brightest of their lives, especially their eating habits. Holding ourselves to these perceived standards of perfection is a recipe for disappointment with our own diets. When someone else’s perfect lunch or flawless figure has you feeling down about yourself, try to remember that all you’re seeing is a snapshot, not the whole picture.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget that, for many people, social media is a full-time job. Following folks who pursue gluten-free, vegan cooking full-time, for example, might not serve you when you’ve got a busy job and picky-eater kids. Rather than following accounts that make healthy eating seem out of reach, seek out those more accessible for your own life circumstances.

Ads Influence Us More Than We Might Think

As much as we might like to believe we’re immune to advertising, marketers use ads because they work. And now, with targeted ads coming at you on social media based on your personal information, advertising is increasingly individualized.

According to 2016 research, this can not only affect our purchasing habits—it can even affect our self-perceptions and behaviors. Though more research is needed on the interplay between social media ads and food choices, it’s clear that ads are a powerful influence on behavior in general, and they may influence us to reach for foods we wouldn't otherwise choose.

May Fuel Eating Disorders

Abundant research has shown that social media can be harmful to our mental state toward food, especially for people in younger age groups. A large 2016 study of young adults found a “strong and consistent association” between social media use and concerns about eating.

Other research from 2020 correlated social media usage with disordered eating thoughts and behaviors in children as young as seventh and eighth grade. Social media-fueled issues like comparing with peers, idealizing unattainable standards, and being the recipient of unkind comments about weight can all contribute to disordered eating.

Studies show that girls tend to photoshop or use filters when posting images of themselves on social media. There is also some evidence suggesting that adolescent girls who spend more time photoshopping selfies and manipulating their image on social media have a higher body-related and eating concerns. Studies have also suggested that the use of certain social media and photo editing applications may be associated with increased acceptance of cosmetic surgery and lower self esteem. 

How to Curate a Healthy Feed

With all the information out there on Facebook or Pinterest about eating well, it can be tough to sort through what’s helpful and what’s not. Looking to make your scrolling a healthier, more positive experience? It may be time to take a closer look at your feed and clean it up to cultivate a healthy relationship with your feed.

First, to ensure you're receiving accurate information on food and health, try assessing any experts in your feed. Are they credentialed professionals? Of course, people can become experts without an alphabet soup of degrees after their names, but those who have completed an education often offer more credibility. Consider subscribing to accounts by registered dietitians, certified diabetes educators, medical doctors, and others with licensures to back their expertise.

Then, try bringing a bit of mindfulness to the screen by paying attention to how posts (and the friends or influencers who made them) make you feel. If their content gets you excited about trying a new recipe, inspires you to meal plan, or simply makes you smile, great! But if posts leave you feeling overwhelmed or bad about yourself, unsubscribe.

A Word from Verywell

For many of us, social media has become a part of daily life. It's up to us to decide how we let it affect us and our eating habits.

No matter how you tailor your feed for healthier food choices, there’s one time it’s best to step away from the screen: when you’re eating! Rather than checking notifications during dinner, make it a priority to focus on—and really savor—the food in front of you.

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