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How Instagram Spoils Your Relationship With Food

‘Food porn’ has more of an impact than you realize

Illustration: Kevin VQ Dam

TThe first food photo I ever posted on Instagram was taken on December 23, 2011. It’s a fuzzy, poorly-filtered photo of a raspberry jam cookie made by my co-worker during the holiday season. It was completely unassuming and unworthy of more than the two “likes” it received, but I’ll never forget its significance.

Unlike most food photos I’ve posted in the years since (now with slightly better lighting and focus), this one was of something I didn’t actually eat. I wanted to eat it, sure, but my eating disorder at the time would never have allowed it. If I couldn’t enjoy eating the cookie, I could at least play the part of someone who did.

SSearching for posts using the #food hashtag on Instagram yields over 300 million results, which isn’t all that surprising. We eat with our eyes, and just seeing imagery of food can elicit intensely pleasurable physical and emotional responses. At least one study has suggested that posting photos of food can also be satisfying. Taking a photo of one’s food before eating delays the act of consumption, thus building anticipation, and ultimately contributing to a more enjoyable taste experience.

“The calories just aren’t worth it if it’s not going to make a good Instagram photo.”

And these days, it’s not uncommon for so-called Instagrammability to play a factor in restaurant and food design, thanks to an increasing awareness that, for many people, the act of snapping a food shot is an integral part of dining. A colleague of mine once confessed getting a large number of “likes” on food posts made her feel validated for what she ate.

“The calories just aren’t worth it if it’s not going to make a good Instagram photo,” she told me.

You can imagine how this is connected to a diet-friendly culture that suggests we shouldn’t eat at all.

“Thanks to the effects of deeply ingrained diet culture, many of us still see foods as intrinsically ‘bad’ and requiring special permission (perhaps via Insta likes and comments) to ‘justify,’” says Lauren Canonico, a psychotherapist who counsels women and those who identify as LGBTQIA+/GSM. “I think we turn to Instagram to validate our choices across the board, but like with all social media, what we see is usually the highlight reel and not an accurate representation of day to day experience.”

Carolina Guizar, a registered dietitian who coaches people via her Eathority service, explains that the feedback from Instagram can encourage people to curate feeds that are filled with healthy-looking food.

“In our health-obsessed culture, praise often accompanies this act,” Guizar says. “Posting may also assuage the guilt of someone who ate a food that is deemed ‘unhealthy’ because it usually invites comments that absolve the eater of the transgression.”

A 2017 study found that higher Instagram usage reinforced orthorexia, an eating disorder rooted in an obsession with healthy eating, in a sample of 680 women who responded to ads on social media. There was a moment in my life where content of the “wellness” variety filled up much of my feed and had a large impact on my food choices. The lives of the people who posted meticulously-styled, vegetable-laden photos seemed impossibly perfect.

What makes Instagram so powerful is its ability to seamlessly blend advertising and “organic” content together.

But things aren’t always what they seem. Instagram may have started as a platform for sharing photos with family and friends, but its value as one of the most effective modern marketing tools is undeniable. And that’s what much of this is: marketing.

What makes Instagram so powerful is its ability to seamlessly blend advertising and “organic” content together, often via influencers who are paid to promote brands in a way that appears as natural as posting photos of one’s breakfast. In the case of food and wellness influencers, they’re doing both simultaneously.

A vibrant photo of a colorful smoothie bowl could be peppered with sponsored hashtags citing the brands involved, but the image offers instant gratification without the tedious, preachy exposition we find so grating in other forms of advertising. Add to this the fact that Instagram suggests similar content based on things we’ve liked and followed in the past, and our feeds become a never-ending billboard.

During the height of my disordered eating days, I often looked to Instagram to tell me what was “healthy” or socially “acceptable” to eat. But why? Influencers aren’t nutrition experts, by and large; they post for engagement, not to dole out useful advice to their followers. A 2017 Men’s Health UK article laments, “With so many wellness advocates being hailed as — if not necessarily claiming to be — ‘nutrition experts’, who should you trust?” A 2015 article from The Guardian echoes the sentiment, claiming that influencer food and wellness advice “is often served up with a hefty side dish of misinformation and encouragement of food phobias. After all, being obsessive about healthy eating isn’t actually all that healthy.”

Things aren’t much different outside the realm of beautifully crafted healthy food. Instagram is one of the reasons the phrase “food porn” has gone mainstream. Photos of epically-portioned, calorie-dense foods generate thousands of likes — but again, appearances can be deceiving. In a sense, Instagram influencers are faking it for engagement.

“Many food Instagrammers don’t actually eat the food they share or, perhaps worse, they post food because it looks good, not because it tasted good,” says Christine Yi of the popular food Instagram account @cy_eats. “It’s usually more about content, especially attractive content, rather than the actual food.”

The excess that is so cool and necessary for that great photo will often end up in the trash.

Jeff Woo, who runs the food Instagram account @foodmento, explains that while he only posts food he enjoys, it wasn’t always like that. When his account first started gaining momentum, “restaurants and PR companies reached out, and I ate and shared food that wasn’t always great or on my personal radar,” he says. “Eating this way can quickly take over your feed as you became a more targeted influencer.”

Aaron Hutcherson, a chef and food writer with an Instagram account of his own, puts it more bluntly: “There’s no way the people sharing the stacks of dozens of cheeseburgers or pizzas the size of a dining table are consuming all of that food. The excess that is so cool and necessary for that great photo will often end up in the trash.”

So many staged photos of unrealistically perfect food or gargantuan portions can actually serve to distance a viewer from their own appetites. I talked to Katy Zanville, a graduate student at Hunter College’s nutrition program who’s pursuing a career as a dietitian, and found she had a sound perspective.

“When we become inundated in diet culture and need external cues to determine what we eat, we lose the connection with our body as intuitive eaters,” Zanville said.

She suggested a way out: “We should observe how we feel when we are scrolling through Instagram and purge anyone that negatively influences us. Varying social media feeds with people who don’t make us feel bad about our bodies and food choices is a great place to start.”

InIn the years since my holiday cookie post, my relationship with Instagram has changed — for the better. Instead of using social media as a tool to hold myself accountable for food and lifestyle choices, it’s become a way to celebrate them, no matter how far they may stray from common perceptions of “wellness.” I found a great therapist who gently helped me move away from restrictive eating, and she, too, advised me to follow social media accounts that made me feel at ease with food. It helped.

Most of what I post on Instagram is still food-related, but now I know I can ‘gram my cake — or not — and eat it, too.

Brittany is a New York-based writer and actor who has contributed pieces for Eater, New York Magazine’s The Cut, VICE’s Broadly, Time Out, Bustle, and more.

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