Seeing friends’ meals on social media may give us ‘licence to overeat’

7 Feb 2020

Image: © Auslander/

Whether it’s healthy fruit and veg or junk food, what you see eaten by friends on Instagram or any social media platform could influence your diet.

Researchers from Aston University in the UK have shown we are very susceptible to herd behaviour when it comes to our diets. Writing in Appetite, they said that social media users were more likely to eat fruit and vegetables – or snack on junk food – if they think their friends do the same.

Those who participated in the study ate an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables for every portion that their social media peers ate. The assumption is that if they see their friends eating their ‘five a day’, they were more likely to eat an extra portion.

However, Facebook users in particular were found to eat an extra portion of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks for every three portions they believed their friends on social media were having. It also suggested we eat around a third more junk food if we think our friends also indulge.

‘If we believe our friends are eating plenty of fruit and veg, we’re more likely to eat fruit and veg ourselves’

The researchers said that the findings provide evidence to suggest that online social circles could be influencing our eating habits, potentially providing important implications for using ‘nudge’ techniques on social media to encourage healthy eating.

The study involved 369 university students who were asked to estimate the amount of fruit, vegetables, energy snacks and sugary drinks their connections on social media consumed daily.

This was cross-referenced with the participants’ own eating habits, showing that those who felt their social circles ‘approved’ of eating junk food consumed significantly more themselves.

A need for caution

No significant link was seen between the participants’ eating habits and their body mass index. The next stage of the research will look to track a person’s social media group over time to see whether it has a longer-term impact on their health.

“If we believe our friends are eating plenty of fruit and veg, we’re more likely to eat fruit and veg ourselves,” said PhD student Lily Hawkins.

“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.”

When asked on the issue of nudging people towards certain diets, Aisling Pigott, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, said: “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.

“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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic