These days, spending time on social media platforms is a common experience among people of all generations. It is unusual to find someone who has access to the internet and doesn’t have a profile on at least one social media platform. In fact, the question that divides generations isn’t so much about whether they are on social media or not, but which platforms they use and like best.
Social media can be integrated into almost every aspect of people’s lives in some way or another—from social networking and buying products and services to building a business and getting health and nutrition advice. It is likely that most people on social media receive at least some messages about nutrition, eating habits, and body image through the accounts they follow.
As you scroll through Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, or LinkedIn, ask yourself—how many nutrition, health, and fitness influencers do you follow? What are they saying? How do they make you feel about your lifestyle choices? As a health and nutrition coach, do they impact your thinking and behavior? How might they impact the behaviors and thinking of people without the background knowledge you have?
In this article, we discuss recent research on the impact of social media on eating habits.
Whether you want to understand how social media might be impacting your clients’ eating habits, or you want to be aware of considerations for your own social media content, the information provided here will help you have a greater understanding of the potential of social media to have an impact on eating habits, and, more importantly, how to create content that is more likely to have a positive impact on your clients’ and followers’ eating habits.
A Critical Eye on Social Media Influencers
If you are an influencer or strive to be one someday, as you read this section, we would like to encourage you to step back for a moment and think about the social media world and the role of influencers.
Generally speaking, what is social media? Social media is where people share experiences, opinions, knowledge, thoughts, and feelings.
It is also where organizations, businesses, and companies project their brand and values with the goal of motivating individuals to jump on board an idea, product, or service.
While the previous statements are true, the reality of the social media world isn’t so clear-cut. People who are out to share their experiences, opinions, knowledge, thoughts, and feelings may be out to gain a following.
A social media following could lead to business and monetization opportunities. Therefore, the line between an individual out to connect with like-minded people and for-profit endeavors may be blurred.
Ultimately, the goal for many on social media, nonetheless, is to become an influencer. Influencers are people who, whether for profit, perks or to get ideas out there, have the power to influence the thoughts and actions of their followers. They may have gained the identity of an influencer because of what they share, because of how they share it, or both.
What and Who Influences Influencers?
As a health and nutrition coach, you specialize in understanding the complex and intertwined components that influence health behaviors.
People who are influencers have opinions about and experiences with food and eating habits. There are endless criteria that impact their opinions and experiences, including:
- Personal experiences. These may or not represent the mainstream experience. Individual experiences are also important. However, your experience and the experience of those around you may be different from that of the influencers’ and the mainstream (“average”) experience.
- Formal education. A person’s training and education are some of the factors that may most influence their opinion, especially if their opinions rest on their formally gained knowledge. It is important to note that formal education, while it is systematized, is not immune to sharing conflicting knowledge.
- Informal education. What they learn from others, their job, and read about are types of informal education that influence their opinions and experiences.
- Profession. A person’s profession is what they get paid to do. It may or may not be linked to formal or informal education. However, getting paid to do something validates their opinions, knowledge, and experiences about that particular topic.
- Access to information. While the internet has helped to make quality information accessible to a wider population, factors like native language (and information available in that language), search skills, social media algorithms, and internet access influence what type of information people have access to.
- Their circle of influence. The experiences and opinions of close friends and family members they trust may have more impact on their opinion than so-called authority sources.
- Income or perk incentives. Are they selling something? Did they get paid to share this information?
As you scroll through your social media platforms, this explains why there may be conflicting information, strong opinions, and overt and covert ads.
4 Ways Social Media May Impact Our Eating Habits
In the world of behavioral psychology, it is widely accepted that when humans are exposed to “social norm messages,” it influences their behavior to emulate that behavior as closely as is practical for them. In other words, people will try to adopt eating habits that closely imitate socially acceptable or expected standards.
Before social media was a part of the human experience, this meant that people observed how people around them ate and the messaging around these eating patterns. These were the social norms, and they were influenced by culture, ecology, economics, and access, among others. Then, they built eating patterns based on these social norms.
Today, the real-life social aspects continue to influence our eating habits, but there is a newer factor that widens our social circles significantly: Social media.
The Meals Our Social Network Shares Impact Our Eating Habits
A recent study out of the University of Birmingham examined the role of social media, specifically Facebook, in influencing our eating behaviors.
The study examined whether perceived norms about Facebook users’ eating habits and food preferences predicted their food consumption. It examined whether the content in individuals’ social networks about food and eating habits impacted their own eating habits and preferences for:
- Energy-dense snacks
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
The study found that perceived eating behavior norms were significant positive predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption. Additionally, perceived norms about what people should and shouldn’t eat regarding energy-dense snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages were also predictors of users’ intake.
The researchers concluded, “These findings suggest that perceived norms concerning actual consumption and norms related to approval may guide consumption of low and high energy-dense foods and beverages differently.”
This may seem like good news, assuming that peoples’ social media is filled with information about health-promoting eating behaviors. It may also mean that having a network that frequently shares information about fad diets, shares inaccurate information, or that simply excludes the consumption of nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables may have a negative impact on eating behaviors.
Edited Selfies and the Idealization of Thin Bodies on Social Media Can Lead to Disordered Eating
It is not only pictures of food and content about what nutritionists and fitness experts ate in a day that influence peoples’ eating habits. In Western culture, it is no secret that thin, lean, big-chested, and big-bottomed female bodies and lean and muscular male bodies are considered “ideal” and generally associated with greater attractiveness and health.
In reality, however, recent research demonstrates that body shape and size have little to no impact on health, and it has been long-known that ideas of attractiveness are relative. Additionally, only a small percentage of bodies actually fit the culturally accepted Western body ideal.
What does this mean for those on social media? Studies show that when users’ feeds are flooded with images of bodies that seem to fit the culturally accepted ideal, they have lower self-esteem, feel shame, and feel the need to manipulate their diet to lose weight, gain weight, or gain muscle in the “right” places. This thinking leads to disordered eating, which is often misdiagnosed or hidden as healthy or disciplined eating habits.
Advertisements with Clear Messaging about Food Impact Eating Habits
Advertisements and paid promotions are sticky topics when it comes to describing their impact on behavior through social media.
By definition, for-profit advertisements are designed to trigger an action that will lead you to make a purchase. Unlike traditional advertisements like television commercials, magazine sections, fliers, billboards, pop-ups, and webpage advertisements that are spaces exclusively for selling ideas, products, and services, advertising on social media isn’t always easy to set apart from the crowd.
On your social media feeds, you will find a picture of your cousin’s family and your friend’s opinion of a recent book they read, followed by a paid advertisement that follows the same format. If you aren’t looking for the grayed-out word with the label “Advertisement” or the #ad hashtag, the fact that a company paid for that content to show up on your feed can go unnoticed.
In this sense, as you look through your feed filled with people, companies, and organizations you chose to follow, advertisements get a boost over normal algorithms.
The question is—how do advertisements impact eating behaviors?
Several studies have focused on the impact of food and beverage-related advertisements on eating behaviors, especially of children and adolescents. This is what researchers found:
- Exposure to content that centers on unhealthy food and beverages contribute to the adoption of habits that diminish health. Marketing companies employ images of family friendly events to sell unhealthy foods. Digital marketing spaces are largely unregulated, meaning that this content, which is easily shared, can have a significant impact on eating behaviors and can be considered by public health professionals as manipulative.
- Researchers examined the relationship between childrens’ engagement with food and beverage content and the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages among children 10-16 years old. They found that children with higher online engagement with food brands and content, especially through videos, are more likely to consume unhealthy foods and drinks.
- Systematic reviews show that food and brand marketing adversely affects children’s diet quality and diet-related health.
- One study found that brands that include energy-dense, nutrient-poor food and beverages on Instagram use between 6 and 11 different marketing strategies in their Instagram accounts, most of which aim to manipulate consumer emotions rather than present information about their products.
Movements that Promote Intuitive Eating, Appreciation of Cultural Eating Patterns, and Body Acceptance Can Help Reverse the Damage of Social Media
Intuitive eating, Health at Every Size (HAES), body acceptance, and body positivity are all relatively new movements and approaches in the mainstream health and nutrition field. They are also controversial approaches to health and nutrition in some circles, and they may not speak to your personal philosophies.
Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the research that these movements have had a significantly positive effect on the mental health and—yes—physical health of people of all different body shapes and sizes. Social media has the potential to add fuel to the fire of food shaming and food restriction that, as demonstrated in the previous two points, can lead to feelings of shame, trauma, and disordered eating.
Below is a summary of the research of how these approaches help to ameliorate the impact of social media on disordered eating behaviors and negative body image:
- When compared to a control group, people enrolled in a HAES intervention were less susceptible to hunger and inhibition (an indicator of self-esteem) than in the control group.
- In a systematic review of HAES interventions, it demonstrated a positive effect on mental health outcomes and physical activity. It also promoted positive changes in eating habits.
- An eight-year longitudinal study found that intuitive eating produces better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors.
- Body acceptance and body positivity movements on social media show a diversity of body types and sizes through fashion and beauty-related activism, physically active portrayals of people in bigger bodies, and a focus on holistic wellbeing. However, as with any movement in which the community contributes, these movements are not immune to contradictory messaging.
If health and wellness, rather than weight loss and body shape and size, is the goal of your coaching practice, you may want to consider learning about and adopting some of these frameworks and approaches.
Are You an Influencer or Do You Plan to Be? 4 Considerations for Your Content
Taking your health, wellness, or nutrition coaching business online has the potential to maximize your impact and reach, not to mention your income.
The effective use of social media in your digital marketing and branding endeavors is essential to any online business.
However, in light of the information shared in this article about the potential impact of social media on eating behaviors, mental health, and physical health, it is important to consider the impact of the content you publish on your following and potential leads.
As you build your social media strategy to promote your brand and your business, here are three things to consider so your content contributes to long-term psychological and physical health.
If you are making recommendations, make sure they are doable.
For most coaches, your followers are not full-time nutrition, health, or fitness professionals. They have other jobs and responsibilities and likely only have a limited amount of time and resources to dedicate specifically to physical activity and eating. If you are making recommendations, consider their reality. This will help diminish or eliminate a projection of shame.
Sharing before and after pictures, selfies, meals, and personal fitness routines? Ask yourself whether this will actually be helpful to your followers.
If you are a health coach, you likely spend more time than the average person thinking about meals, working out, and daily routines. You may think that sharing images of what you ate in a day, before and after pictures, measuring out your food, and calculating nutrients and calories helps to motivate your followers or demonstrate your dedication, but in doing so, you may be triggering shame, disordered eating habits, and low self-esteem.
It may not always be the case, however, if your content is honest, makes you more relatable, demonstrates how to put your recommendations into practice, or helps challenge some of the idealized, edited images of health professionals on mainstream media. Some of this content may also be useful for professionals who focus on coaching and training professional athletes.
Be aware of the impact of your content on children and adolescents.
It is increasingly normal for children and adolescents to have access to content created for adults. Be aware of the impact that your content may have on younger populations who are more susceptible to the impact of advertising and subliminal messaging.
Acknowledge different experiences.
When health experts, like yourself, affirm stereotyped body images and eating patterns that promote health, it can send the message that there is only one path to wellbeing. In a world with so much cultural richness and multitudes of experiences, it is important to acknowledge that there are many paths to wellbeing.
By acknowledging the experiences of clients with different backgrounds, diagnoses, and body shapes and sizes, not only are you helping to transform the social media world that can lead to disordered eating, but you are also casting your net into a wider market that can imagine working with you.
Social media platforms are complex, rich, and ever-changing worlds that influence, among a multitude of other things, eating habits and body image. The health, nutrition, and wellness industries have found a home on social media, as people look for readable and accessible information, tips, advice, and services that can help them make behavior changes that promote health.
Unfortunately, though the intention is positive, much of the mainstream health and nutrition social media content has more of a negative impact on long-term health and wellness than a positive one.
If you are a health, nutrition, fitness, or wellness influencer, consider creating content that promotes healthy body image, relates to your real-life followers, and acknowledges a variety of experiences.