Is Social Media Making You Fat?

Hungry after scrolling through your Facebook feed? Food porn might be to blame.

It’s hard to scroll past a perfectly photographed cake or mac and cheese dish on Facebook or Instagram — but you might want to.

Food porn, defined as appetizing food or cooking imagery, has long been used by advertisers and now even has its own searchable hashtag. And if you frequently view these delicious images, you might notice a change in your waistline.

According to research published in the journal Brain and Cognition, regularly viewing mouth-watering food photos on social media may trigger feelings of hunger and encourage overindulgence. The same review also poses the theory that the current obesity epidemic in the United States may be, in part, due to the abundance of food porn people are viewing.

But do images of food, online or on television, really make a person more likely to indulge?

“That's exactly the point of advertising, to get people to buy those things and eat those things,” says Yevgeniy Gelfand, MD, an expert in psychiatry and internal medicine with Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. “I think advertisers look for stimuli that get people interested and that's why these images exist,” adds Gelfand.

How food porn makes you hungry

There may be some validity to the saying, ‘you eat with your eyes first.’ In fact, one study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that the appearance of your meal — including the color, evenness, and shape — actually influences the way you feel about the of taste, smell, and flavor, in a food way.

There’s more: Another study found that looking at pictures of food was enough to raise a person’s levels of ghrelin, a hormone involved in the stimulation of hunger. The review published in the journal Brain and Cognition suggests viewing tasty images sends a rush of blood to the part of the brain responsible for taste, encouraging you to eat, even when you’re not hungry. This is known as visual hunger, or the desire to look at images of appealing eats followed by the desire for food that results from this viewing. Gelfand believes there may be another aspect to it — cravings. It seems like a no-brainer: when you’re fixated on satisfying a craving, it won’t take much to push you toward the pantry. If you’re craving a salty, savory dish and a juicy steak appears on your screen, complete with vibrant colors and beautiful imagery, you’ll probably give into the craving, Gelfand says.

There are several reasons we may crave foods in the first place, including thirst, emotion, and habit. How do habits form? By repetition that is made stronger by the release of dopamine, a chemical that regulates pleasure. So, if every time you plop yourself in front of the computer screen, you find yourself reaching for something to munch on, you’ll likely find yourself in a pattern of eating while scrolling.

It’s almost like you see the food porn and think, wow, what a good idea, says Gelfand.

Related: Sneaky Reasons for Your Unhealthy Cravings

The other way social media influences your weight

Although food porn can increase your hunger and up your likelihood to indulge, it may not be the only culprit in online-related weight gain. People who spend a lot of time on social media likely spend large quantities of time sitting while they scroll, too much of which can lead to obesity or metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by a group of factors that up the risk for heart disease.

Gelfand believes the time spent sitting while scrolling through social media has much to do with potential weight gain. “Because you're sitting, you're not moving around, there's less walking, unless someone is really mindful about their exercise,” Gelfand says. “People tend to snack, I think, when they sit on social media, too.”

Related: Why Sitting Too Long Can Kill You

5 tips to avoid overindulging

Of course you don’t have to give into every craving — you can make small changes to curb your food porn habits.

1. Follow pages that showcase healthy foods — we promise they exist. In fact, some people use social media to hold themselves accountable for eating well, and one small study found that it worked! Some great Instagram accounts to follow include @kalememaybe, @ohsheglows, and @thewholefooddiary.

2. Make it a point to pin (or save) healthy recipes and whip up one healthy, Pinterest-inspired meal each week. Need inspiration? Follow Sharecare’s Pinterest page for healthy meal ideas.

3. Limit your time on “food porn” sites. If you aren’t watching it as often, it won’t have as great an effect on your appetite.

4. Make healthy choices to satisfy unhealthy cravings — swap your favorite sandwich cookies for a handful of banana chips with a tablespoon of peanut butter or trade in a bag of potato chips for a handful of salt and vinegar almonds.

5. Replace 30 minutes of screen time with another activity like reading or walking. These new hobbies will keep your mind off eating, and are conducive to a healthy lifestyle.

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