How Internet #foodporn could promote real-world weight gain

Exposure to Instagram junk food content negatively impacts mood and cravings in young adults, research finds. — AFP Relaxnews

Exposure to content featuring junk food on social networks could affect mood, promote cravings and influence users’ food choices, according to a new study that highlights the importance of improving media education, particularly among the younger generations, and of “promoting mindful social media use”.

“I can feel the pounds piling on just looking at it!” Who hasn’t thought something similar at the sight of a juicy burger dripping with cheddar cheese spotted on a social media feed, or even on a cooking show, without ever thinking for a moment that this statement could be true?

However, researchers at Lebanese American University have demonstrated that constant exposure to these photos – particularly via the #foodporn hashtag on Instagram – could not only be detrimental to mood but also promote weight gain. These findings underscore the extent to which social networks can influence the habits and behaviours of their users, especially younger users.

Several scientific studies have previously focused on the impact of social networks on users’ physical and mental well-being, and in particular, on their body image. In this new randomised controlled trial, researchers looked specifically at the effects of images of junk food, which are ubiquitous on social platforms.

They subjected 63 participants aged 18 to 24 to a questionnaire, then invited them to browse the feed of a control Instagram account or the feed of an account packed with junk food images, for 15 minutes. The young adults then completed a short survey on their perceived body image, mood and food cravings. A week later, each group did the same thing again, but with the content reversed.

Hunger, sadness, exhaustion

Published in the journal, Appetite, their findings reveal an association between exposure to #foodporn content and increased feelings of hunger, sadness and exhaustion, as well as greater cravings for fatty and salty foods.

The researchers note that, when exposed to junk food content, participants were more likely to turn to this type of food, and much less likely to turn to healthy foods. No association was found between junk food content and body image dissatisfaction.

“Exposure to junk-food related content on social media negatively affects mood and cravings, subsequently influencing food choices. The present findings shed light on the need for interventions aimed at providing cognitive and emotional competencies for enhancing media literacy and promoting mindful social media use,” the study concludes.

This isn’t the first time that science has looked at the impact of such content on users.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered in 2022 that the visual cortex – the part of the brain that processes information transmitted by the eyes – lit up when images of mouth-watering food appeared. These findings may go some way to explaining why we like to see such images so much. – AFP Relaxnews

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