Instagram may help users track food intake

29 April 2017

Uploading that snap of your morning coffee or lunchtime snack could also help out your health.

Instagram users post millions of artfully arranged food photos every day.

And the process of uploading that snap of your morning coffee or lunchtime snack may not just boost your number of followers, but it could also help out your health.

Researchers at the University of Washington have found that by posting photos of food on social media users are more likely to meet healthy eating and weight loss goals, as the platform makes dieters feel accountable and also allows them to track their consumption.

"The benefit of photos is that it's more fun to do than taking out a booklet or typing hundreds of words of description in an app," said lead author and engineering doctoral student Christina Chung. "Plus, it's more socially appropriate for people who are trying to track their diets to snap a photo of their plate when they're out with friends - everyone's doing it and it doesn't look weird."

Read more: I tracked everything I ate for a week – and it taught me 7 surprising things

For the study, the academics conducted in-depth interviews with 16 people who consistently record and share what they eat on Instagram about the benefits and challenges of using the social media platform to achieve their eating and fitness goals. Instead of using a traditional food journal or app that requires users to write down or log everything they eat, the interviewees snapped pictures of what they ate in a day. Accordingly, the participants stated that having a visual account of what they ate each day was helpful in managing their diet.

"When you only have one data point for a pizza or doughnut, it's easy to rationalise that away as a special occasion," said senior author Sean Munson. "But when you see a whole tiled grid of them, you have to say to yourself, 'Wait, I don't actually have that many special days.'"

Because Instagram allows for different accounts under the same user profile, participants could join communities with similar interests in food tracking, and still, avoid sharing the snaps with friends or family.

People did report some tensions between wanting to remain honest about what they ate and feeling reluctant to photograph food that would be perceived as undesirable.

But users who ultimately met their weight loss, eating or fitness goals also found that remaining on Instagram - and helping mentor and encourage others - made it easier for them to maintain their desired behaviours and to continue to be mindful of their health.

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