When you open Instagram*, you’re immediately bombarded with beautiful pictures of iconic nature scenes, happily engaged couples, the most adorable animals, and, of course, drool-worthy plates of food.
This relatively new social network has been growing in users every day and novel ways of using the application have emerged, including tracking weight loss and weight management. Research has shown that social support can be a key feature for many when embarking on a diet to lose weight. Emerging studies have found that online social networks can help motivate and encourage participants to adhere to their health goals. Instagram has captured the attention of people looking to share and find healthy living inspirations through photos and captions.
Recently, researchers from the University of Washington conducted semi-structured interviews with participants that use Instagram to share photos of their daily eats instead of using a traditional food journal or application to record their food intake. They found that one of the benefits of the Instagram method was taking photos of food when dining out or dining with friends is easier than trying to write or record a description of the meal. Also, Instagram provides a visual food diary, which can be useful in identifying volume and quality of food.
Another benefit is that participants reported that the social and emotional support they received from other Instagram users helped keep them accountable towards their goals, honest about their dietary intake, and encouraged them to extend support to other users. Instagram also allows users to create multiple accounts, so participants appreciated how they could create an account specifically geared towards healthy living. This led them to find likeminded communities and followers through the use of healthy eating, tracking, and weight loss-related hashtags. This also allowed participants to keep their personal account separate so they do not overwhelm friends and family with their food photos. Participants that met their weight loss goals and reached the maintenance stage found that staying on Instagram to mentor others motivated them to stick to their health goals, since they have users relying on them for support.
However, Instagram is not a foolproof platform for successful weight loss and weight management. Dr. Charles Spence, University of Oxford, warns in his review that looking at visually appealing pictures of food through advertisements and social media could stimulate hunger signals. When this “digital grazing” is done too often, it could tempt people to eat, even when they are not hungry. Another study administered an online survey to participants about their social media use, dietary habits, and had them complete an orthorexia nervosa assessment tool. The study found that out of all the social media channels, only higher Instagram use was linked to a greater tendency towards orthorexia nervosa.
Instagram has only been in existence since 2010 and research on the platform is still in its early stages. As access to technology continues to evolve, more research in this area will hopefully continue to emerge. For some, utilizing a social media platform to track and meet health goals could be a useful strategy.
*Instagram is a picture-messaging smartphone application where users can upload photos, apply photo editing filters, and share with the Instagram community through strategically-placed hashtags that link photos together into a virtual photo album.
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