Foodie influencers? How perception of what friends online eat may sway choices

Social media is awash with influencers but when it comes to food your biggest influence could be friends.

Scientists claim that those on social networking platforms are more likely to eat a piece of fruit or vegetables if they think peers online do the same – and vice versa for people partial to snacking and junk food.

A group of 369 university students were asked to estimate how much fruit, vegetables, ‘energy-dense snacks’ and sugary drinks they believe their Facebook friends chomp down each day.

Cross-referenced with participants’ own actual eating habits, the results suggest that we tuck into similarly classed foods to what we perceive our social circles consume.

So those that ate junk food and believe peers online also indulge consumed around a third more of it, research in the Appetite journal explains.

Meanwhile, people who thought their friends ate healthily tend to munch an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables themselves.

“This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realise when choosing certain foods,” said Lily Hawkins, an Aston University health psychology PhD student who worked on the study.

“We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices.

“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 ‘licence to overeat’ foods that are bad for our health.

Burger and chips
Burger and chips

“The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to ‘nudge’ each other’s eating behaviour within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions.”

Scientists note that the study showed no significant link between people’s eating habits and their Body Mass Index (BMI).

They are now looking to track a group over time to see whether the influence of social media on eating habits has longer-term impact on weight.

Aisling Pigott, a dietitian at the British Dietetic Association (BDA) said: “Research such as this demonstrates how we are influenced by online perceptions about how others eat.

“The promotion of positive health messages across social media, which are focused on promoting healthy choices and non-restrictive relationships with food and body, could nudge people into making positive decisions around the food they eat.

“We do have to be mindful of the importance of ‘nudging’ positive behaviours and not ‘shaming’ food choices on social media as a health intervention.

“We know that generating guilt around food is not particularly helpful when it comes to lifestyle change and maintenance.”