You’re out with friends, and the appetizer you decided to share arrives — and it’s huge. So you snap a picture and share it on your Instagram feed. Later on, you post a shot of a decadent dessert, and as you scroll through your feed, you notice that many others have done the same.
While seeing a picture of a juicy steak might be good for business if you are a steakhouse, according to researchers, the trend of sharing food pictures on social media actually has a negative impact on our nutrition and healthy eating habits. It’s not just that we crave unhealthy foods when we see pictures of them. An overabundance of food images can actually impact how we enjoy food and cause us to reject healthy food choices.Photographing our food has become somewhat of a national hobby. At any given moment, someone somewhere is using his or her smartphone to take a snapshot of their meal. Perhaps it’s because the food is particularly well-presented (or the opposite), especially unhealthy or simply interesting, but in any case, we have become a nation of sharers — food sharers, that is.
Food is a basic building block of life; without it, we simply wouldn’t survive. However, as the researchers who study the psychology of why we eat will attest, there are far deeper emotional reasons people eat. There’s a reason that certain foods are labeled “comfort foods.” Humans have an innate need to feel “full.” In short, it’s human instinct to avoid starvation and seek the calmness and satisfaction that comes from satiety.
So how does this relate to Instagramming your lunch? Well, according to a recent study, viewing photos of food actually has the effect of making people feel satiated even when they aren’t. For example, in the study, half of the participants looked at images of sweet foods, while the other half viewed saltier options. When offered snacks afterwards, those who had seen more sweet images declined the sugary snacks and even reported feeling a bit sick, while those who viewed photos of salty snacks reported enjoying a snack of peanuts less than usual.
What the researchers believe is that viewing many pictures of a particular type of food can actually satiate you, even if you never actually eat a bite of that particular food. When you look at pictures of salty snacks, your brain feels as if it’s enjoyed something salty even though it hasn’t, thereby reducing your desire for something similar.
While this sounds like it might be helpful, especially if you are trying to avoid certain foods, it can actually have a negative effect on our diets. If your friends constantly post pictures of delicious healthy foods, like salads, you might be less likely to enjoy your next salad or even order or make one, because your body thinks it’s already “full” on that food. Instead, you might choose something far less healthy and end up packing on pounds.
Another Point of View
While it’s possible that seeing too many pictures of healthy foods could create a feeling of satiety for certain flavors, other studies show that seeing images of food does in fact trigger hunger by activating the parts of the brain that control appetite and reward. Why else would food manufacturers flood television with images of juicy burgers, crisp bacon and other delicious treats?
Seeing the Instagram photo of your friend’s chocolate drenched dessert or spending hours pinning photos of desserts, appetizers and casseroles on Pinterest might make you feel like you’re hungry, even if you just ate a meal. You might wind up craving a snack or cook something that you wouldn’t otherwise and take in more calories than you intended.
So what’s the solution? Social media isn’t going anywhere, and people probably won’t stop photographing their food any time soon. With that in mind, researchers suggest limiting the number of images you have access to, which means you may need to unfollow or hide some of your friends who post a large number of food photos. You should also limit the time you spend on Pinterest or other sites with a plethora of food pictures. Don’t browse on an empty stomach, or have a healthy snack within reach so you won’t nosh on cookies or chips and feel the weight of regret later.
There’s no reason that anyone should not enjoy food or hesitate to share an occasional picture of something delicious. Staying in control of the images you see sets you up to enjoy your food the way it was intended.
About the Author: Nutritionist Natalie Gross blogs about healthy eating.