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A new study shows how Instagram junk food content may increase cravings for unhealthy foods and negatively impact mental health. mixetto/Getty Images
  • A new study shows how exposure to junk food content on Instagram increases cravings for salty or fatty foods and leads to feelings of stress, sadness, and exhaustion.
  • Repeated exposure to unhealthy content on social media may have negative psychological consequences.
  • Advertising on social media can influence a person’s decision-making and food choices.
  • To consume social media content in a healthy way, follow reputable, trusted sources.
  • Experts recommend limiting time spent on social media to preserve your mental health.

Advertising on social media has become increasingly popular across all industries, including food brands.

However, there is growing evidence to show that some food-related content is having harmful effects on users’ mental health.

According to a new study, young adults who were exposed to junk food content on Instagram experienced cravings for unhealthy foods and negative mental health effects. The findings were recently published online in the journal Appetite.

Researchers observed 63 participants ages 18 to 24 years old who were separated into two groups. One group looked at a standard Instagram feed and the other looked at a feed with junk food images for 15 minutes.

Next, participants answered a survey, which included questions about body image perception, mood, and food cravings. Then 7 days later, they looked at the other Instagram feed and answered the survey questions again.

Results showed participants who were exposed to junk food content had increased cravings for salty and fatty foods. They also experienced increased feelings of stress, sadness, exhaustion, and hunger.

Neither Instagram feed affected body image perception, the study notes.

“Constant exposure to food advertisements on social media certainly can impact our perception and relationship with food,” said Dr. Nicole Avena, nutrition consultant, assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University, and author of “Sugarless.”

“Seeing your favorite celebrity enjoying a specific junk food through a paid advertisement may incline you to choose similar food options. Similarly, seeing your favorite influencer enjoying healthy and nutritious foods may influence you to choose healthier options,” Avena added.

Social media may also impact our relationship with food through comparison.

“Social media typically focuses on highlights and near-perfect content and advertisements; however, this is not an accurate representation of real life,” Avena explained.

“For consumers, it can become easy to compare what is on your plate to what is on the plate of people that you follow on social media. Comparing your food choices to others can negatively impact your relationship with food and may even impair your body image.”

In addition, social media can influence what foods and lifestyle habits you try. And the more you’re exposed to certain types of content, the greater the psychological impact.

“From direct, delectable food cooking content to fashion and fitness influencers, our perceptions and relationship with food are in some way indelibly impacted by social media,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, and author of “Calm Your Mind with Food.”

“Social media is ever a highlight reel of sorts: beautiful recipes with ASMR-style sound effects may convince us to try new dishes or recipes, while ‘fitness experts’ — who may, in reality, be any level of expertise — may convince us that a particular lifestyle is the way to go. And the constant nature of such stimuli only deepens its impact,” Naidoo said.

Advertisements are often designed to have a psychological effect on the viewer.

“Visual food cues induce a dopamine response in reward areas in the brain,” said Dr. Mireille Serlie, professor of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine.

“Some foods trigger higher responses than others. It has been shown that pictures of food high in fat and sugar lead to a higher dopamine response and to more brain activity in reward brain areas. The intensity of that response predicts the subsequent amount of food intake. Repeated consumption of unhealthy food might affect the wiring of the brain, leading to more cravings and higher food intake,” Serlie noted.

For food advertisements, the goal is often to make it look appealing and delicious to increase the desire to buy and eat it.

“Food brands often use psychology-based marketing techniques to manipulate consumers into making specific decisions surrounding their food choices,” Avena said.

“Junk food content can activate the dopamine system in the brain, which produces feelings of pleasure. For example, if a bag of chips appears on your social media feed, it may increase your cravings for chips due to triggering the feeling of pleasure that your brain typically associates with eating a bag of chips,” Avena added.

Naidoo explained that many factors may be at play in why social media makes us feel negative or craving emotions.

“Firstly, it’s important to understand that a lot of basic human behaviors stem from a drive to survive,” she said. “When we see attractive foods, products, and people on social media, the most unconscious instinct is to want to ‘be like them’ — and if it’s difficult, we can develop negative feelings towards them, or about ourselves.”

“Feelings of impulsivity may be mediated by both the amygdala — or our ‘fear and aggression center’ in the brain, as well as possible dopamine dysregulation associated with addiction. All of this also drives anxiety where we feel unsettled and worried about our food and other choices,” Naidoo noted.

“When navigating Instagram and other social media platforms, it is best to follow accounts that produce positive content and promote feelings of confidence and motivation surrounding your food choices,” said Avena.

“Following accounts that post negative content can be detrimental to our mental health and relationship with food.”

Avena also recommended limiting time on social media to reduce exposure to content that may cause feelings of unease.

As for content in the nutrition space, it’s advisable to view content from registered dietitians and nutrition experts who have a thorough understanding of the science behind nutrition recommendations, Avena added.

“Social media sites use cookies and other algorithms to give us more of what we tend to be seeing,” Naidoo said. “We can turn off cookies or recommended functions to prevent some of this from happening and showing up in our individual social media accounts,” she recommended.

It may also be helpful to follow trusted sources like physicians and even professional chefs on social media to help ensure you’re getting your food content from responsible creators, Naidoo said.

A new study shows that looking at junk food content on Instagram increases cravings for unhealthy foods and leads to feelings of stress, sadness, and exhaustion.

Experts say social media marketing can influence our desires and decisions, including what we eat.

When considering food-related content on social media, it’s recommended to follow nutritionists and dietitians who are reputable and credentialed.



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