We are what we eat – but what about what we tweet?
A new study by a University of Auckland researcher might lead us to think about our newsfeed in an entirely different sense, by unravelling the complex relationship between food and social media.
From the artfully arranged dinner plate close-up to the mouth-watering Uber Eats post, food saturates platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
And as the heaviest users of social media, young Kiwis are exposed to an unknown volume of food-related posts every day.
Yet PhD student Saswata Ray said there had been surprisingly little research done on the connection – and he now wanted to know what influence our social media lives were having on what we ate.
“Whenever a new invention involving food comes along – whether it’s a fridge or a microwave – the way we eat has changed,” Ray said.
“And young people happen to be on social media the whole day, so we are talking about a huge exposure to food.
“At the same time, nobody really knows how we decide what we want to eat. These are very complex and dynamic decisions, but ones that we are making each day.”
As food was one of the major determinants of health across any age group, the question of social media’s influence was an important one to answer.
“The rising obesity rate is a major issue, and food plays a role in many other non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and certain types of cancer.
“Given that young adults are the highest users of social media, it’s really important to find out if social media is playing a role in their food-related decisions.”
Some overseas researchers have already pointed to a problematic influence.
One recent UK study suggested that the marketing of unhealthy foods via vloggers’ Instagram pages increased children’s immediate energy intake.
Its results were supported by celebrity endorsement data, which showed unhealthy food endorsements caused children to eat more of it, while healthy food endorsements had little to no effect.
But as far as he was aware, Ray’s study would prove the first nationwide survey of its kind in the world.
After carrying out 15 in-depth interviews with young adults, Ray designed an online questionnaire targeted at around 430 Kiwis aged 18 to 25.
Rather than just look at one part of the issue, Ray wanted to explore the entire picture.
His study would canvas the effect of food-related information found on social media, the role of influencers and bloggers, how companies used platforms for food marketing, and the advent of online ordering services like Uber Eats.
One particular question was whether attractive-looking food pictures were powerful enough to trigger hunger.
“I’m also interested in young adults’ own critical awareness of the influence of food-related social media,” he said.
“What intentions do young adults have behind posting food-related images?”
He hoped the study would at least get people to think about the link between their phones and stomachs.
“When I’ve talked about this on a train or a bus or a lift, people have told me it’s really interesting to consider. And when you really start thinking about, it definitely stays in your mind.”
Ray is seeking more people to carry out his survey. They can complete it here.