Social media users 'copy' friends eating habits, research finds

Caroline Allen
Contributor
People tend to follow trends set by their peers. [Photo: Getty]

We’ve all heard of the theory that if you surround yourself with positive people you will feel more positive as a result.

According to new research, the same can be said for your eating habits.

If the people you follow on social media regularly post photos of healthy foods, Aston University’s School of Life and Health Sciences discovered that you’re more likely to follow suit.

It works both ways, too. If your friends are snapping photos of junk food, you’ll be more likely to drive to the nearest fast food chain.

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The research found that participants would eat an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables for every portion they thought their peers were eating.

In theory, that means that if you think your social media friends are getting their “five a day”, you will have an extra portion of fruit to compensate.

On the flip side, if Facebook users thought their friends were eating junk food, they’d eat around a third more junk food as a result.

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The research is the first of its kind to suggest our online social circles could be influencing our eating habits.

Companies have quickly seen the value of influencer marketing which sees individuals with a big following advertising for brands.

But, what about on a more local level? This could open up a whole new platform to encourage healthy eating.

The study of 369 university students was published in the scientific journal, Appetite.

It asked participants to estimate how much fruit, vegetables, energy-dense snacks and sugary drinks their Facebook friends consumed daily.

Those who thought their social circles “approved” of eating junk food were a lot more likely to readily consume it themselves.

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The most recent figures from the NHS's Health Survey for England showed that in 2018 only 28% of adults were eating the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. That was the highest rate across the UK, with Northern Ireland coming in lowest at 20%.

Children and young people have an even lower overall consumption.

Aston University health psychology PhD student Lily Hawkins, who led the study alongside supervisor Dr Jason Thomas, 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.”

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