food photos

Food photos: the good, the bad, the ugly

No, this is not an article about good/bad/ugly photos on social media. Rather, it’s a brief analysis of potential pros and cons of what’s happening with food photos in social media.

My food photography story

I was born in the pre-digital camera era. My first camera was a black and white film Kodak. I was 8 or 9 and would take photos of me and my sisters, the dog, etc. Back then, it didn’t even occur to me about taking pictures of meals, even though I’ve always loved food. In retrospect, that’s a good thing, considering what I used to eat until well into my 20s.

My first blog, which started in Feb 2006, was in Spanish and had a decent amount of articles about food. However, there were not many photos; taking pictures of your meals was not a thing yet, at least not in Perú. See screenshot below of a post about coriander in which I mention 15 different dishes and a restaurant without a single photo. Even when I started my food blog Lateral Eating in 2009, taking photos of food in public was not always socially acceptable.

And then Instagram happened. Soon after its launch in October 2010, more and more people started taking and posting pictures of their food. In the beginning, some (most?) restaurant owner/managers were not very keen on people taking photos of their meals. Some claimed it was annoying to other diners, but I think it was more of a fear of exposing the actual plated meals to public scrutiny.

For a percentage of the population, Instagram is just an instrument of procrastination. Yes, they look at food pictures which might make them hungry or crave a burger, but they don’t engage at a deeper level with the images. Likewise if they are the ones posting the photos: they snap it, don’t filter it, post it and forget about it. The rest of Instagram users might experiment some sort of effect, either positive or negative, after posting or seeing food photos.

Food photos – the good

As a dietitian, I take diet histories all the time. Some people are pretty good at remembering what they ate, some people need a bit of help, some people just lie. I once saw a young Asian guy in hospital who had a procedure earlier that day and couldn’t remember his meals. FOrtunately, he had snapped a photo of his tray, so writing down his diet history was a piece of cake. Similarly, there are a number of diet tracking apps that allow you to attach photos of your meals to your logs so that your dietitian can see what you actually ate. This is super useful.

A small study (convenience sample of 16 females) summarised all the things that are great about posting food photos, specifically on Instagram (1):

  • You can keep track of your food intake and how it relates to your goals
  • You can connect socially with people who share the same interests
  • You can motivate other people to cook, eat healthy, etc.
  • You can share information, such as recipes
  • You can use it as an accountability tool for yourself and others

Food photos – the bad

Once you realise that posting a photo on social media means that it’s out there for the entire world to see, posting pictures of your meals can get stressful in a few different ways:

  • You might feel bad if you have not posted any photos in the last X amount of time
  • You might feel guilty if you haven’t had anything healthy to eat and therefore you decide not to post a photo of what you actually ate
  • You might feel disappointed because your food photos don’t look as good as someone else’s
  • You might annoy/embarrass your dining companions by taking photos of your meal in public
  • You might miss out on quality time with your loved ones because you were focusing on taking the perfect shot

Food photos – the ugly

A larger study (convenience sample of 680 females) explored the relationship between social media and othorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with “clean eating”. The prevalence of this condition (note: it is not recognised as an official diagnosis yet) is estimated to be less than 1%. Participants answered a questionnaire about social media use and eating habits, to determine their tendency towards othorexia nervosa. The researchers found that this tendency was greater in people who had higher Instagram use. In addition, other studies have found associations between social media use and depression, negative social comparison and isolation (2).

Parting thoughts

Given the rapid growth of social media users (as an example, see chart below), it is concerning that the percentage of people who are negatively affected by food photography on will grow in a similar pattern.

Our best bet is to keep our eyes and ears peeled for potential signs of emotional distress and/or obsessive behaviours in ourselves and people around us.

References

  1. Chung CF et al. When Personal Tracking Becomes Social: Examining the Use of Instagram for Healthy Eating. Proc SIGCHI Conf Hum Factor Comput Syst. 2017 May 2; 2017: 1674–1687.
  2. Turner PG and Lefevre CE. Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eat Weight Disord (2017) 22:277–284.

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