Psychology student studies how social media impacts healthy (or not) diets

Search #food on Instagram and you’ll find yourself browsing through over 377 million mouth-watering results of everything from salad to pizza to gourmet macaroni to decadent chocolate desserts.

Originally appeared in the College of Letters & Science April 2020 In Focus.

Delve a little deeper and you’ll find a trove of recipes and nutrition information accompanying the posts. Fitness bloggers swear by the smoothie recipe they’ve perfected while others on “health journeys” share the secrets of low- calorie desserts and healthy 15-minute dinners.

It’s enough to make your head spin and your stomach growl. Alese Nelson decided to give it all a closer look.

“We were interested in studying how the internet plays a role in what we eat, how we perceive the food that we’re eating, and health overall,” she said. “If you go online, it takes very little to see that there are tons of recipes being posted and a lot of health advice being offered, and not necessarily from people who are qualified to be offering that advice. But people are taking it and it’s having an impact.”

Nelson is working toward her doctoral degree in psychology at UWM. Her recent research explores how accurately people judge the healthiness of food depending on whether that food has been posted to social media or not. Are people more likely to judge a food as healthy if they see it on a menu in real life or in a post on Instagram?

To test that, Nelson designed an online survey that asked people to rate food as “healthy,” “neutral,” or “unhealthy.” The respondents were shown pictures of food in different contexts – some posted to social media, some not – and asked to rate both the health of the food and how likely they were to eat it.

The results were a bit surprising.

“For that part of the study, we did not find significant differences in terms of how people rated the food, whether or not it’s posted on social media,” Nelson said. Instead, “Where we did find differences was in how men and women were rating foods. In ratings of how healthy the foods were, men rated unhealthy foods as healthier than women did.

“We also found that for women, there was a relationship between how healthy they perceived a food to be and how likely they were to eat it. But for men, there was no relationship.”

There are limits to the study. Nelson’s respondents were drawn mainly from college students, so the audience skewed toward a younger, more social media-savvy crowd. But the results do suggest some differences in the way men and women use social media, Nelson said.

“We did find that women use Instagram more than men do. There are different expectations on men and women in terms of health and overall fitness and weight,” she noted. “Women face more obesity-related stigma than men do.

Overall, I think women are more focused on health and more is expected of them.”

Trying to eat healthy foods is a worthy goal. Nelson worries, though, that relying on social media recipes and health advice could have a negative impact – especially if people can’t accurately judge how healthy a food is.

“I think most posters have the best intentions with putting health information out there and sharing what works best for them. But most of them are not qualified to be giving that information,” Nelson said. “They’re regular people sharing what they ate in a day, or maybe they work for a company that is promoting health products.

“I wanted to understand who is posting this information, and if people are following the advice. Ultimately, the goal is to find a way to reduce the amount of bad information that people are paying attention to, and to see if we can find a way to use social media to get people following legitimate health advice.”

So, the next time you’re scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and happen across a new recipe, have fun cooking – just make sure you double-check how healthy the food actually is.

And then, of course, share a photo of the results.