The Instagram Effect on Body Image and Dietary Choices

Exposure to junk food on Instagram negatively impacts young adults’ body image, mood and cravings, a recent study warns.

By Luther J. Kanso

The influence of social media platforms on individuals’ wellbeing has become a topic of extensive research and concern.

A recent study spearheaded by Associate Professor Nadine Zeeni, titled “Exposure to Instagram junk food content negatively impacts mood and cravings in young adults: A randomized controlled trial”, explores the complex interplay between social media usage and various aspects of physical and mental health, including body image perception and dietary behaviors.

Co-authored by Instructor and Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) Director Joelle Abi Kharma, Associate Professor in the Nutrition program Lama Mattar and Assistant Professor in the Psychology program Myriam El Khoury-Malhame, the paper was selected by the press release agency of the global data analytics company, Elsevier, to be included in the Elsevier Research Selection, an e-newsletter targeted at science journalists and reporters worldwide.

This recognition catapulted the research into the spotlight, resulting in coverage by several prominent media outlets including the Daily Mail and Daily Express in the UK, and The Star in Malaysia, among others.

The study highlights how Instagram has emerged as a significant platform in exacerbating body image dissatisfaction through exposure to unrealistic beauty standards set by celebrities and peers, especially in its more extensive emphasis on visual content compared with Facebook and X, formerly Twitter.

“In 2018, I noticed how much time my students spend on social media platforms and how much importance they place on what they post and what they see,” said Dr. Zeeni. “We started by conducting a study comparing the impact of different types of technologies on physical and mental health and noticed the distinct effects of social media and cell phone dependence on body image, eating disorder risk and anxiety.”

Given the platform’s oversaturation with high-calorie and sugary foods, the research employed a randomized crossover design, whereby university students aged 18–30 were asked to browse either a control account with neutral content or a junk food account for 15 minutes. The participants then completed surveys assessing factors such as body image satisfaction, mood and cravings, before hypothetically selecting meals from a provided list of options.

The study findings revealed a notable increase in feelings of hunger and cravings for salty, savory and fatty foods after exposure to junk food content compared to neutral content, which underscored the considerable impact of social media on dietary preferences and eating behaviors.

This exposure to food content can also take different forms. According to Dr. Mattar, different movie genres can influence food preferences, with findings suggesting a link between watching romance films and a preference for sweet foods, and horror movies leading to an inclination toward salty and fatty options.

“In our previous research, we detected a link between passive exposure to visual stimuli and food preferences,” she said. “Movie types did not seem to affect directly hunger or appetite but rather triggered some food preferences.”

Additionally, the study uncovered correlations between baseline body image dissatisfaction, negative mood and cravings following the participants’ interaction with junk food content. Individuals with higher levels of body image dissatisfaction were more susceptible to the negative emotional effects of viewing indulgent food images on Instagram.

This happens because the increased neural response to this type of content could make individuals more self-conscious, leading to negative thoughts about their bodies, commented Abi Kharma.

“The psychological distress associated with poor body image can be amplified, potentially contributing to a cycle of emotional eating or other unhealthy coping mechanisms,” noted Abi Kharma. “This, in turn, may further hinder people’s ability to address their obese weight status, creating additional challenges in achieving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”

From a different angle, the cycle of visual imagery and individual sensitivities can be affected by other psychological factors, according to Dr. El Khoury-Malhame. “When people are tired or sad or stressed, they tend to react impulsively rather than rationally,” she explained. “Social comparison makes curated food presented online very glamorous and desirable; it is equated with conditioning-like processes to improve overall feeling about oneself especially when in low, sad, and stressed mood.”

Social media algorithms amplify this cycle by tailoring specific content to users’ emotions, “creating echo chambers whereby people react to posts based on their emotional state, which ‘feeds’ the social media algorithm onto their existing preferences,” she added.

Such findings emphasize the need for interventions to address the negative impact of social media on individuals’ wellbeing and health-related decisions. Strategies such as promoting social media literacy and implementing regulations on unhealthy food content could help empower users to navigate social media platforms more mindfully and evaluate the content they consume.

“The fact that our findings are being disseminated through media channels is of high importance,” said Dr. Zeeni, “because one of our study’s recommendations was the need for interventions to increase community awareness addressing the documented negative impact of certain types of social media content. Having these media channels showcase our findings is an ideal way of reaching out to the concerned community.”

Targeted interventions aimed at vulnerable populations, such as adolescents and young adults, she added, are warranted to promote positive body image and healthy eating behaviors in the digital age.

Dr. Zeeni intends to further investigate the influence of social media on health behaviors, with current research focusing on diverse content exposures such as body transformation and fitness-related imagery, as well as images promoting healthy foods. These ongoing studies aim to provide deeper insights into the nuanced connection between social media usage and individuals’ health decisions.