It's easy to see how our social circles influence the way we eat. For example, my wife is pescatarian, so I eat more fish and vegetarian options than I would otherwise. However, a new study suggests that the social influence on our food habits may go beyond the obvious impact of the people we eat with on a regular basis. Even our Facebook friends may be nudging our diet in more (or less) healthy directions.
A team of researchers from Aston University in the U.K. recently published a paper which asked, “Do perceived norms of social media users' eating habits and preferences predict our own food consumption and BMI?” What they found is that though Facebook didn’t have any correlation with body mass index, subjects’ eating habits did tend to align with how they felt their digital social circles ate. People who thought their Facebook friends ate more fruits and vegetables ate more fruits and vegetables themselves. And users who believed their Facebook circles were into junk food ate more junk food.
“This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realize when choosing certain foods. We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices,” Lily Hawkins, a health psychology PhD student and a lead author of the paper, said in announcing the findings. "So if we believe our friends are eating plenty of fruit and veg we're more likely to eat fruit and veg ourselves. On the other hand, if we feel they're happy to consume lots of snacks and sugary drinks, it can give us a ‘license to overeat’ foods that are bad for our health. 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.”
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Specifically, the research surveyed 369 college students—both men and women with an average age of about 22—who were asked first about “their perceptions of Facebook users' consumption of, and preferences for, fruit, vegetables, energy-dense snacks and sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs),” according to the study, after which they were asked about “their own consumption of and preferences for these foods.” The authors also state, “Further work is required to establish whether these perceived norms also affect dietary behavior over time.”
Of course, perceptions work both ways. Maybe healthier people assume their Facebook friends are like them? And junk food eaters believe their social media circles are equally indulgent? Hawkins explained this could be a possibility. “Further studies may want to consider looking at this, too,” she told me via email. “However, we were just looking at an initial association between perceptions of social media users’ eating habits and our own, and our study shows at least that the association is significant in this direction.”
Regardless, this study would seem to reinforce that it’s hard to simply disconnect your real life from your social media one. When it comes to food, we say “you are what you eat.” If Facebook is part of your social diet, it could be influencing you in more ways than you think.
This story originally appeared on Food & Wine.
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