The oh-so-famous Instagram food photos might have an unexpected perk, new research has shown — they help users keep an eye on what they eat.

Instagram food photos — sometimes they’re light and cute, like this. Image via Pixabay.

There are millions if not billions of food photos floating around on Instagram. Seriously, you can find everything, from the triple Michelin star dinner to the average morning omelet, from the classic breakfast frappe to what Gordon Ramsay would call prison food. But for some people, photographing their daily food isn’t just a social media fad — it’s a useful tool. Researchers from the University of Washington report how some people track their eating habits through Instagram photos.

The principle is simple: it’s just easier and more fun.

“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 UW human centered design 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.”

In a paper to be presented at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in May, they carried out in-depth interviews with 16 such users, discussing how they use the social media platform to track and achieve their fitness goals, with the end purpose of designing new efficient tools to help people to support healthy behaviors.

…but more often, it’s like this. Image credits: Janbies.

The key thing was to photograph all or almost all meals, and as Chung says, it’s not awkward or cumbersome at all. It’s become completely socially acceptable to snap photos of your food to post on Instagram, though one can only wonder why snapping photos for your healthy food diary is not socially acceptable (is it?). Still, that’s beyond the point here — it works, that’s what matters.

The reason why it works is also pretty simple: it’s easy to lose track of what we eat, both in terms of the food and the quantity of food. Keeping an eye on it helps us acknowledge just what we’re doing wrong. Are we eating too much, or are we simply eating unhealthy food? Or, as it so often happens… both?

“When you only have one data point for a pizza or donut, it’s easy to rationalize that away as a special occasion,” said senior author Sean Munson, assistant professor of human-centered design and engineering at the UW. “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.’”

To make things even better, Instagram (and social media in general) makes it easier for users to receive moral and emotional support from friends and family. It also subconsciously makes them “accountable” to their social network, so they feel guilty when they’re “skipping” some meals. For instance, one woman said she wouldn’t log into the MyFitnessPal app (used specifically for this purpose) to log in small snacks like a bag of chips because she felt they were too small.

“With Instagram, it helped me because I was taking a picture of it — it’s real and it does exist and it does count towards what I was eating. And then putting up a visual image of it really helped me stay honest,” the user said.

Another thing Instagram does is that it helps users have several accounts under one profile, and one of them can be used as a #FoodDiary; and yes, hashtags also help. As researchers report, all the interviewees who achieved their fitness goals said Instagram helped. Although 16 people is not exactly a large sample size, we all know how difficult maintaining motivation can be, and everything that helps with that is a godsend in my book.

“Maintenance becomes pretty boring for a lot of people because your quest to hit a goal has worn off,” Munson said. “This made things more interesting and meaningful for people because after they got to their goal, they turned to thinking about how they could help others and stay accountable to people who were relying on them for support.”

The paper has not yet been peer reviewed.

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