( Photo by The Packer staff )

Can what we share on social media influence other people’s eating habits for the better?

A recent article on foodandwine.com reviewed a new study from researchers at the United Kingdom’s Ashton University looking at whether our perceptions of our social media friends’ food habits influence what we eat and our body mass index.

Put more simply — if you see my Facebook posts about the shortbread I baked last week or the salad I made for lunch today, is that going to make you want to eat shortbread or salad, too?

The researchers asked about 370 male and female college students, with an average age of 22, what their perceptions were of Facebook users’ “consumption of, and preferences for, fruit, vegetables, energy-dense snacks and sugar sweetened beverages.” After that, they were asked about their own consumption of and preference for the same items. 

According to Food & Wine’s article, people who thought their Facebook friends ate more fruits and vegetables also ate more produce themselves — and the same held true for the less healthy options. 

“This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realize when choosing certain foods,” Food & Wine quoted the study’s lead author, Lily Hawkins, as saying. “The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to ‘nudge’ each other’s eating behavior within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions.”

Facebook food-sharing habits didn’t appear to have an effect on BMI, the researchers found.

It's OK, you can like my salad if you want to.
Hawkins said the researchers were just looking at initial relationships between people’s perceptions of their friends’ eating habits and their own, so the study doesn’t address whether folks who eat healthy tend to assume their friends do, too, or whether those who eat a lot of junk food expect that their friends also do.

Either way, it seems like the reinforcement of seeing other people enjoy delicious, healthy food can only produce positive results in the long run.

On the other hand, could this social sharing be making our meals boring? 

British food historian Bee Wilson, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says much-hyped “it” foods can lead to “overconsumption and disillusionment” among consumers, or menu offerings that look suspiciously similar from restaurant to restaurant. 

“I sometimes think I will scream if I see another kale salad,” she writes. “I loved them when they first appeared, but now they have been dulled by ubiquity.” 

The point of Wilson’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece is that conformity dulls creativity, and we can get burned out even on healthy foods if we’re always eating the same item fixed the same way. 

I don’t disagree, but it’s helpful to have somewhere to start, especially for people who are just beginning to get more culinarily adventurous. You don’t have to top your kale salad with avocado just because I did — but if you want to, go right ahead. It tastes great.

Amelia Freidline is The Packer’s designer and copy chief. E-mail her at [email protected].

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