This article was first published in The Montreal Gazette.
With the holidays past and the New Year upon us, it’s time to do what we always do. It’s time to make New Year’s resolutions about eating healthily and losing weight. But these are easier said than done and many resolutions will not survive very long.
The problem is that the deck is largely stacked against us. For one thing, junk food tends to be cheaper then healthy food. For another, the marketing of junk food influences what food choices we make.
It used be that the influence was overt in the form of commercials or subtly worked into the plot of a movie as product placement. Of course, when you think of E.T.’s fascination with Reese’s Pieces, it wasn’t always so subtle. But now, marketing happens on social media. Be it via Facebook, or YouTube, or Instagram, we get inundated with pictures of food, ideas for recipes and endorsements by the new generation of Internet celebrity, the “influencer.”
It would be tempting to think that time spent on the Internet doesn’t affect what we eat. We are, after all, blessed with free will. But there is substantial evidence that marketing influences what we eat, especially for children. Just consider how many commercials you see for children’s breakfast cereal, at least on U.S. channels.
A study in Pediatrics showed that this influence extends to platforms like Instagram, as well. Researchers took 176 children and showed them Instagram pictures of celebrities featuring healthy snacks (like bananas), unhealthy snacks (like cookies) or non-food products (like running shoes) as a control group. The children were then provided snacks and allowed to eat whatever and as much they wanted for 10 minutes. They were provided healthy snacks like carrot sticks and seedless grapes as well as unhealthy snacks like chocolates and jellybeans.
In some ways, the results were predictable. The children invariably preferred the junk food and consumed about three times as many unhealthy snacks as healthy snacks. They also managed to consume about 400 calories in the 10-minute span given to them as part of the research protocol.
While none of this was truly surprising, when you compared how the Instagram pictures affected food choices there were some interesting results. First, children shown Instagram pictures of unhealthy snacks beforehand consumed about 26 per cent more calories than those in the control group who were shown pictures of non-food products. Second, those shown Instagram pictures of unhealthy snacks consumed a greater proportion of their calories from unhealthy snacks compared to the control group. But what was truly interesting was that those shown Instagram pictures of healthy food before being allowed to snack had results similar to those of the control group. In other words seeing unhealthy food encouraged the children to eat junk, but seeing healthy food didn’t make them eat better.
A cynic might interpret this to mean that there is no redeeming aspect to social media. True, it has many videos of cute corgis, but in terms of food choices it seems like it can tempt us to be bad, but not encourage us to be good.
Given how hard it is to eat healthily, avoiding the simple things that work against you is key. Do not go to the grocery store hungry, because you will invariably buy more snacks if you do. Check out food posts online and you are probably more likely to eat junk, as well. We tend to think of social media as a benign entity, but it has many ads, endorsements and product placements designed to get you to buy stuff, including junk food.
So if your goal this year is to lose weight, you might also want to spend less time online, too.
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