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. The majority of people following social media accounts receive messages on nutrition, food habits and body image.
As you scroll through Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, or LinkedIn, ask yourself—how many nutrition, health, and fitness influencers do you follow? They are saying what? Do they influence your decisions about lifestyle and how do you react? How do you feel about their influence on your thoughts and behaviors as a coach in nutrition and health? What might their impact be on the thinking and behavior of others without your background?
We will be discussing recent research about the effects 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.
Social media is, generally speaking. What is social media? It's where people can share their experiences, opinions and knowledge.
Companies, organizations and businesses use it to promote their brands and values, with the ultimate goal of encouraging people to embrace a new idea, product, service, or product.
While the previous statements are true, the reality of the social media world isn’t so clear-cut. It is possible for people who want to share their opinions, ideas, knowledge and emotions to build a following.
Social media could be a way to increase your business or monetization. The line between someone who is looking to make connections with others and those seeking for profit may blur.
Many social media users are trying to influence others. Social media influencers can be people that, regardless of whether they are doing it for money, perks, or just to share their ideas, have the power and ability to affect the actions and thoughts of followers. You can either be an influencer by the content they share, how you share it or both.
Which Influencers Are Influenced?
As a health and nutrition coach, you specialize in understanding the complex and intertwined components that influence health behaviors.
The people that influence others have their own opinions and experience with food. There are endless criteria that impact their opinions and experiences, including:
- Personal experiences. These experiences may not be representative of the main experience. These experiences can also be important. However, your experience and the experience of those around you may be different from that of the influencers’ and the mainstream (“average”) experience.
- 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. While formal education is structured, it can still be influenced by conflicting information.
- Informal education. They learn from their jobs, what others do, and the things they read. These are all types of informal education.
- What is your profession? A person’s profession is what they get paid to do. You may have to go through formal and informal education. But, being paid for something is a validation of their knowledge and experience on the topic.
- Information is available. The internet is helping to provide quality information to more people. However, other factors such as language proficiency, search skills and social media algorithms can influence the type of information that they have access to.
- Your circle of influence. They may find that the opinions and experiences of family members and friends they trust have a greater impact than authority sources.
- Perks and income. Do they sell anything? Is this something they were paid for?
You will see that there are conflicting opinions and ads on social media.
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. This means that people try to eat according to socially acceptable standards.
Social media wasn't yet a reality. Before then, people were able to see what their friends ate and how they communicated about it. These were social norms and were affected by ecology, economy, access and culture. These social norms were then used to create eating habits.
Although the influence of real-life relationships still has an effect on how we eat, social media is expanding our circle significantly.
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. This could also indicate that a social media network that shares frequently inaccurate information or excludes the intake of nutrients-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, may be a problem.
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. A small number of people actually conform to Western culture's ideal body image.
How does that affect those who are 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.
For-profit ads are meant to drive you to take an action and make you buy. 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.
As you browse your feed, you will notice that advertisements are more prominent than normal algorithms.
The question is—how do advertisements impact eating behaviors?
Numerous studies focused on how advertisements related to food and beverages impact eating habits, particularly among children and teens. 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. The vast majority of digital marketing channels are unregulated. This means that the content can easily be shared and have an impact on eating habits. Public health professionals can consider this to be 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. The researchers found that kids who are engaged online with content and brands of food, including videos, have a higher likelihood to consume unhealthy foods.
- 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. Positive changes were also made 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. These movements can be contradictory, just as any other movement that the community participates in.
These frameworks and methods may be beneficial if your primary goal is health and wellness and not weight loss or body size.
Is your goal to be an influencer? 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.
Any online company must make use of social media effectively in their digital marketing and branding efforts.
This article outlines the possible impact social media can have on eating behavior, mental health and other aspects of health. Therefore, you need to be aware of how the content that you post will affect your followers and potential leads.
Here are some things you should consider when creating your social media strategy for your brand or business.
Recommendations should be achievable, even if they involve making suggestions.
Your followers may not be full-time health and nutrition professionals. Their lives are full of other responsibilities. They may not have the time and resources necessary to devote to eating and exercise. Make sure you consider the reality of your recommendations. It will reduce or even eliminate shame.
What about sharing before and after photos? Photos of meals and selfies? You have to ask yourself if this is going to be beneficial for your followers.
You spend more time thinking about your meals and working out than most people. Although you might think sharing photos, such as before and after photographs, of how you eat, calculate calories and nutrition, motivates your followers, it could be damaging to your self-esteem and cause shame.
This may not be true all the time. However, honest content can make you seem more human and show how your suggestions are implemented. It also helps to challenge the unrealistic images that mainstream media portrays of healthcare professionals. This content could also prove useful to professionals working in coaching or training athletes.
Consider the effects of your content upon children and teens.
Children and teens have increasingly easy access to content designed for adults. Your content can have an impact on young people who are less susceptible to subliminal messaging and advertising.
Acknowledge different experiences.
Health experts like you can convey the message that one way to happiness is to accept different experiences. It is crucial to recognize that wellbeing can be achieved in a diverse world.
Recognizing the different experiences and diagnoses of your clients will help you to change the world. You can also reach a larger market by extending your hand to those who are open to 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. Social media has become a place for the health and nutrition industries. People are looking for easy-to-understand information and tips that will help them to make healthy lifestyle changes.
Although the intentions are positive, many mainstream nutrition and health social media posts have a more negative effect on long-term wellness and health than positive ones.
Consider creating content for influencers in health, nutrition and fitness that encourages healthy body image. It should also relate to real people.