A new study from University of Washington researchers describes how some people post photos on Instagram to track their food intake or to be held accountable by followers in meeting nutrition or weight loss goals.
Instead of using a traditional food journal or app that requires users to log everything they eat, the participants snapped pictures of what they ate in a day and shared them on Instagram using the #fooddiary or #foodjournal hashtags. Some also used the photos as a reference so they could remember to log their food later in the day.
For the study, the researchers interviewed 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. The plan to use the results to inform the design of tools to support healthy behaviors.
Benefits of food tracking on Instagram
The benefit of photos is that it's more fun to do than writing in a journal or typing words of description in an app. It’s also easier to snap a photo of their plate when they're dining out.
And having a visual account of everything one eats in a day -- both in terms of volume and quality -- can help people spot trouble.
"When you only have one data point for a pizza or donut, it's easy to rationalize that away as a special occasion," said the lead researcher. "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.'"
The participants said that social and emotional support from other Instagram users helped them stick to their own tracking and healthy eating goals, and many returned that support for others.
In some cases, feeling accountable to other Instagram users and followers caused people to be more honest about their eating habits.
"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," one Instagram user said.
Because Instagram allows you to create different accounts for different purposes under the same user profile, people reported that they could easily find communities and followers with similar interests by using food tracking, weight loss or healthy eating hashtags -- and could avoid overwhelming friends and family who weren't interested in seeing pictures of everything they ate. That differs from Facebook, for instance, which doesn't allow for multiple accounts or identities.
Instagram helped people maintain weight loss
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 behaviors and to continue to be mindful about their health.
Using Instagram made maintenance more interesting and meaningful for people because after they achieved their goal, they thought about how they could help others and stay accountable to people who were relying on them for support.
Source: University of Washington.
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