Weight Loss

Does Social Media Contribute To Weight Gain?

It’s hard to scroll past a perfectly photographed dessert or indulgent dish, but that’s exactly what you should do. “Food porn,” defined as appetizing food or cooking imagery, has long been used by advertisers and now even has its own searchable hashtag. If you frequently view these delicious images, you might notice a change in your waistline.

According to research published in the journal Brain and Cognition, regularly viewing mouth-watering food photos on social media may trigger feelings of hunger and encourage overindulgence. The same review also poses the theory that the current obesity epidemic in the United States may be, in part, due to the abundance of food porn people are now able to access online.

But do images of food, online or on television, really make a person more likely to indulge? “That’s exactly the point of advertising, to get people to buy those things and eat those things,” says Yevgeniy Gelfand, MD, an expert in psychiatry and internal medicine with Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. There may be some validity to the saying, ‘you eat with your eyes first.’ In fact, one study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that the appearance of your meal—including the color, evenness and shape—actually influences taste, smell and flavor.

It’s almost like you see the food porn and think, “wow, what a good idea- let’s eat.” The study in Brain and Cognition also found that looking at pictures of food was enough to raise a person’s levels of ghrelin, a hormone involved in the stimulation of hunger. It suggests that just viewing tasty images sends a rush of blood to the part of the brain responsible for taste, encouraging you to eat, even when you’re not hungry. This is known as “visual hunger.” Just looking at enticing, savory images results in the desire for the very food being seen. It certainly helps to explain why it’s so hard to watch “Bake Off” without reaching for a biscuit or a slice of cake.

It seems like a no-brainer: when you’re fixated on food and want to satisfy a craving, it won’t take much to push you toward the pantry. If you’re craving a salty, savory dish and a juicy steak appears on your screen, complete with vibrant colors and beautiful imagery, you’ll probably give in. There are several reasons we may crave foods in the first place, including thirst, emotion and habit. How do habits form? By repetition that is made stronger by the release of dopamine, a chemical that regulates pleasure. So, if every time you plop yourself in front of the computer screen, you find yourself reaching for something to munch on, you’ll likely find yourself in a pattern of eating while scrolling.

The other way social media influences your weight:

The intriguing new science of social networks is demonstrating how personal interconnections can affect our health. Ideas and habits that influence health for better or for worse can spread through social networks in much the same way that germs spread through communities. In social networks, though, transmission can happen even though the people may be hundreds of miles apart.

A landmark study found that if one sibling or spouse became obese during the study, the chance that another sibling or spouse would become obese increased by 40%. You might like to chalk this up to genetics and environmental issues, except that if study participants had a friend who became obese, the chance the study participant would become obese as well rose by 57%!

Although scientists don’t fully understand how obesity spreads, they suspect that social networks influence what its members perceive as normal and acceptable. If people see their friends becoming heavier and heavier over time, they may accept weight gain as natural, even inevitable. Instead of exercising more or eating less when their weight begins to creep up, they may simply go with the flow and join the crowd.

We are also constantly bombarded by ‘ideal’ images in newspapers, magazines, on TV and especially online. We all know these images aren’t real- they are professionally produced- but our subconscious mind remains gullible, struggling not to compare those images to what we see in the mirror every day.

Psychologists know that internalizing a thin ideal leads to us becoming unhappy with our own body image and generates unhealthy views towards food and eating, in particular dieting. For decades, newspapers and magazines were blamed for publishing pictures of rake-thin models perpetuating an impossibly skinny ideal. But multiply that exposure exponentially if you’re keen on social media, spending hours each day flicking through perfection on your phone.

You might think you’re just being nosy and voyeuristic as you scroll through a Kardashian Instagram feed, or rush to catch up with Victoria Beckham, but this constant stream of unattainable (and often airbrushed) beauty is definitely not good for your mental health. Social media makes it difficult, if not impossible, to be happy with your own body and weight. This makes achieving healthy weight goals even harder to attain.

It also makes food a fashion, elevating it beyond being just a source of sustenance, and creates a desire to keep up with an ever-changing fashion buzz. Ultimately, this leaves us feeling we’re never quite good enough and worrying about perceived imperfections no one else can even see. How many times have you obsessed over that grey hair or wrinkle you were sure defined you? Most people are so busy worrying about their own imperfections I promise they aren’t seeing yours.

It’s even effecting our children:  A new study shows that social media sites that promote unhealthy food are more likely to encourage children to adopt bad dietary habits. Researchers from the New University of Liverpool in the U.K. showed three groups of children, 9 to 11 years old, fabricated Instagram pages of real social media influencers with more than 1 million followers. One group was shown images of the social media influencer with unhealthy snacks such as chocolate cookies, another group was shown the influencer with healthy snacks such as bananas, and the third was shown the influencer with non-food items such as sneakers.

Children who were shown images of unhealthy snacks consumed 32 percent more calories compared with the other children – about an extra 90 calories a day.  Natalie Digate Muth, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said studies have suggested just an extra 70 to 80 calories a day can cause a child to become overweight and possibly obese. “Clearly an extra 90 calories per day will contribute to excess weight gain. But more than that, unhealthy snacks are high in sugar and salt, which we know have long-term impacts on overall health, contributing to diabetes and heart disease.” Those kids in the healthy-food and non-food groups had no significant change in diet.

Tips to avoid overindulging:

Of course you don’t have to give into every craving-you can make small changes to curb your food porn habits.

• Follow pages that showcase healthy foods—they do exist. In fact, some people use social media to hold themselves accountable for eating well, and one small study found that it worked! I’ll go into this more next week.

• Make it a point to pin (or save) healthy recipes and whip up one healthy, Pinterest-inspired meal each week. Check out our Pinterest board for some great ideas:

• Limit your time on “food porn” sites. If you aren’t watching it as often, it won’t have as great an effect on your appetite. And limit your online activities to 30 minutes at one time.

• Make healthy choices to satisfy unhealthy cravings. Swap your favorite sandwich cookies for a handful of banana chips with a tablespoon of peanut butter or trade in a bag of potato chips for a handful of salt and vinegar almonds.

• Replace 30 minutes of screen time with another activity like reading or walking. These new hobbies will keep your mind off of eating, and are conducive to a healthy lifestyle.

• Find your realistic, healthy weight and make that your goal.

• Take a social media break altogether and switch it off for a day. See what it feels like to have no exposures for a while.

• Remember, social media is without a doubt the worst perpetrator of presenting only what we want to share. We spend time making sure we only show the best parts of our lives in a polished and perfect existence. Real life is nothing like this.

The good news is there’s strong evidence that the influence of social networks can also work in the other direction, and help people maintain a healthy weight. I’ll discuss this next week.

dsc_0323    –Dr. Courtney








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.