Finally, a scientifically validated reason as to why people take so many pictures of their food - and how they might benefit from doing so.
Food bloggers and people, in general, get a bad rap when it comes to taking pictures of their meals so they can be uploaded and shown off on social media. And granted, your friend who incessantly takes photos of his/her food and beverages then shares them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat can be a bit annoying. However, research now shows that using apps such as Instagram to showcase one’s food choices can actually help people eat healthier.
The study was conducted by the University of Washington and reveals that people who track food intake through photography often make better food choices. This is likely a result of being held accountable by followers, though the researchers also believe the visual aid helps food lovers perceive the type (and quantity) of food they really eat and, as a result, make better choices.
For the study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 16 people who consistently record and share what they eat on Instagram. They recorded the participants’ perceived benefits and challenges of using the social media platforms to achieve their eating and fitness goals and concluded that Instagram works better than apps or journaling to monitor food intake because it is easy to snap a picture then upload it for the world to see. Some users make sure to use the hashtags #fooddiary or #foodjournal when sharing an image so they can remember to log their food later in the day.
Commenting on the findings, lead author and engineering doctoral student Christina Chung stated:
“The benefit of photos is that it’s more fun to do than taking out a booklet or typing hundreds of words of description in an app. Plus, it’s more socially appropriate for people who are trying to track their diets to snap a photo of their plate when they’re out with friends – everyone’s doing it and it doesn’t look weird.”
Senior author Sean Munson, assistant professor of human-centered design and engineering at the UW noted that Instagram is beneficial for those who desire to track their food choices because it becomes easier to see if one is truly “treating” themselves once or twice a week, or if they are just indulging every day.
“When you only have one data point for a pizza or donut, it’s easy to rationalize that away as a special occasion,” said Munson. “But when you see a whole tiled grid of them, you have to say to yourself, ‘Wait, I don’t actually have that many special days.’”
There’s a type of camaraderie between users of Instagram and their followers, as well, the researchers learned. For instance, one woman who previously used the MyFitnessPal app to track her diet says she used to make excuses to herself about why she didn’t need to log a bag of chips because it was so tiny. “With Instagram, it helped me because I was taking a picture of it – it’s real and it does exist and it does count towards what I was eating. And then putting up a visual image of it really helped me stay honest,” the user said. By uploading pictures to Instagram, however, she feels more accountable and strives to maintain a predominantly healthy diet. By using certain hashtags, individuals can also feel as if they are part of a community, and that type of support is essential when it comes to losing weight (and keeping it off). The ability to create multiple accounts for specific purposes is credited by the researchers as a powerful tool for those who use the resource for keeping clean diets.
“With Instagram, you can have a separate part of your profile dedicated to food journaling and you don’t have to be worried that your family member or neighbor who just wants to see pictures of your dogs or vacations will be turned off,” Chung said. “It’s not funneling everything to the same channel.”
It is also worth noting that taking pictures of food, editing them, and then uploading them to a social media platform is now more socially acceptable than logging every macro and micronutrient one consumes, particularly in the younger generations. Of course, some of the people who were interviewed did report tensions between wanting to remain honest about they eat and feeling reluctant to photograph food that would be perceived as unhealthy.
Ultimately, however, it seems the app offers plenty of reward for those who desire to get fit and be healthy, and don’t care about their neighbor’s opinion on the consistent practice of photographing food. If it allows people to be more mindful of their health, it is likely a positive tool in present-day society.
“Maintenance becomes pretty boring for a lot of people because your quest to hit a goal has worn off,” Munson said. “This made things more interesting and meaningful for people because after they got to their goal, they turned to thinking about how they could help others and stay accountable to people who were relying on them for support.”
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