PSYCHOLOGY

How food influencers affect what we eat

Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that food-related content on social media is making us think differently about food

In Summary
  • Researchers are looking at ways to make social media influence our diets in positive ways.
  • Our eating habits are also influenced by what we see
Chicken schnitzel served with mashed garlic potatoes, fresh vegetables and mushroom sauce.
Chicken schnitzel served with mashed garlic potatoes, fresh vegetables and mushroom sauce.
Image: HANNIE PETRA

Many of us are lucky enough to have some degree of choice over what we eat.

When we open the fridge or browse the shelves of the local supermarket, there is a smorgasbord of options available to us.

But are the decisions we make about our diet as free as we like to think? What if there was something other than our own hunger and the choices that happen to be at eye level influencing what we eat?

Scroll through social media sites such as Instagram, Twitter or Facebook and you will be confronted with picture after picture of perfectly presented and utterly delicious-looking meals.

While the smell and taste of food can have an undeniably powerful effect on our cravings, are endless posts of steaming snacks and glistening morsels more than just a feast for our eyes?

Certainly, it appears we're hugely influenced by other people – especially those closest to us – when it comes to what we eat. Research has found that the closer and stronger two people's connection, the more sway they have over each other's food choices.  

"A lot of our cues from face-to-face interactions are linked with who we're with," says Solveig Argeseanu, associate professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, US.

"It's more about the relationship and how I compare myself with that person than specific individuals. If I think the person I'm with is more attractive or popular, I'll tend to want to imitate them more."

This can mean these social cues generally encourage us to eat more, Argeseanu adds. Although, being around healthy eaters may encourage you to eat healthier, too, according to research.

Our eating habits are also influenced by what we see. Scientists say we favour "oozing" protein, a dribbling egg yolk, or bubbling mozzarella, for example.

"There is some evidence that, if you see pictures of food, that visual stimulation can prompt you to feel a desire to eat," says Suzanne Higgs, professor in the psychobiology of appetite at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Although she says, whether people follow through on that desire is influenced by a lot of other factors, such as what food is available at the time.  

But social media is one place where visual and social cues meet. There is certainly evidence that if friends in your social network post regularly about particular types of food, it could lead you to copy them, for better or for worse. And research indicates that social media might be changing our relationship with food, making us think differently about what we eat.

"If all your friends on social media are posting pictures of themselves consuming fast food, it's going to set a norm that eating fast food is what people do," says Higgs.

Research suggests we're more likely to engage with photos of fast food, says Ethan Pancer, professor of marketing at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

This is particularly true of saturated fat because it makes us feel good by releasing dopamine and stimulating pleasure centres in the brain.

 Humans are biologically primed to seek out calorie-dense food – an ability that helped our ancestors survive when they foraged for food.

"Evolutionary psychology has found that people feel happy when they simply see these foods and thus engage with it more," he says.  

With more exposure to unhealthy foods, consumer perceptions of what is considered normal eating habits may skew to be unhealthier – Ethan Pancer

It doesn't help that healthier foods are often seen as boring in comparison, whereas processed food is seen as "cool", says Tina Tessitore, associate professor of marketing at the Institut d'Économie Scientifique Et de Gestion (IESEG) School of Management in Lille, France.

Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that food-related content on social media is making us think differently about food. Social media algorithms promote content that users engage with more, so viewing more unhealthy food means seeing more of it on our social media feeds, Pancer says.

"With higher engagement and reach metrics for unhealthy foods, content producers may gradually shift their content to be unhealthier to stay competitive," he says.

One study estimated that children and adolescents see marketing for food between 30 and 189 times per week on social media apps, with fast food and sugary drinks being the most common.

But it's not just advertising placements from the food industry that are responsible – we're all capable of influencing people online.

The amount of influence social media has on us also varies by individual, says Melissa Atkinson, a lecturer in psychology, at the University of Bath, UK.  

"There's a lot of individual difference in terms of how we respond to social media images, in terms of our own biological and psychological processes," she says. Some people have a higher reward response to food cues, for example, where the brain sends out pleasure signals after seeing certain foods, Atkinson says. These people are more likely to respond to food cues no matter where they see them.

But even without definitive answers, researchers are looking at ways to make social media influence our diets in positive ways.

Tessitore, for example, has found a way to make healthier food seem more exciting on social media. She created two Twitter pages that were identical apart from one detail – one had 23 followers, while the other had more than 400,000.

Both accounts published the same tweet about eating healthy food. She showed participants to one of the two accounts, and when asked afterward how likely they were to eat a salad, those who saw the account with more followers were more inclined to want to eat a salad.

This is because the more we assume someone has influence, the more likely we are to be influenced by them ourselves, Tessitore says.