What our friends on social media eat influences our own food choices, a study shows.
Scientists found people ate an extra portion of fruit and vegetable each day if they thought their peers on Facebook were doing the same.
The copycat tactics are not limited to healthy eating habits – junk food consumption increased by a third if people believed their friends were also indulging.
Researchers warned that the approval from our friends who are chomping down on unhealthy foods may give us a dangerous ‘licence to eat’.
Normally it’s social media stars that are thought to sway our diet. But this study suggests our influences are closer to home.
The researchers from Aston University, Birmingham, said the findings could be useful for tackling bad eating habits in children using social media.
Study leader Lily Hawkins, a PhD student in health psychology, said: ‘This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realise when choosing certain foods.
‘We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices.
‘So if we believe our friends are eating plenty of fruit and veg we’re more likely to eat fruit and veg ourselves.
‘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.
‘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.’
In the study, published in the scientific journal Appetite, the researchers asked 369 university students to estimate the amount of fruit, veg, ‘calorie-dense snacks’ and sugary drinks their Facebook friends ate on a daily basis.
This information was cross-referenced with the participants’ own eating habits and showed that those who felt their social circles ‘approved’ of eating junk food consumed significantly more themselves.
Meanwhile those who thought their friends ate a healthy diet ate more portions of fruit and veg.
Their perceptions could have come from seeing friends’ posts about the food and drink they consumed, or simply a general impression of their overall health.
Scientists note that the study showed no significant link between people’s eating habits and their Body Mass Index (BMI).
They are now looking to track a group over time to see whether the influence of social media on eating habits has longer-term impact on weight.
The most recent figures from the NHS’s Health Survey for England showed that, in 2018, only 28 per cent of adults were eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
Aisling Pigott, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, said: ‘Research such as this demonstrates how we are influenced by online perceptions about how others eat.
‘The promotion of positive health messages across social media, which are focused on promoting healthy choices and non-restrictive relationships with food and body, could nudge people into making positive decisions around the food they eat.
‘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.’
Professor Claire Farrow, Director of Aston University’s Applied Health Research Group, added: ‘The important new findings from this study could help shape how we deliver interventions that help them [young people]adopt healthy eating habits from a young age – and stick with them for life.’