Is social media fueling the obesity epidemic?

Let’s face it, these days you’re bombarded with pictures of food literally 24/7. Whether it’s through advertisements, social media, or cooking programs, you’re constantly surrounded by “food porn.” And this week is particularly bad—with visions of sugar plums…sugar cookies…and sugar everything “dancing” in your head (or, more appropriately, across your screen).

I’ve been going back and forth for years trying to decide if this continual visual celebration of food is good or bad.

For me, personally, it has been a good thing. Because seeing these images actually satisfies my cravings. In fact, I actually like walking into a bakery and just basking in the delicious smells. Or discovering a brand new flavor of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer section of the grocery store. And I have no trouble walking away. Knowing that doughnuts and ice cream still exist in the universe is all I need to make me happy.

But that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, I just came across an article that took an in-depth look at this topic, and came away with some unsettling conclusions.

Apparently, the “digital grazing” people do on social media these days is overloading their senses — and their ability to just say “no.”

According to a study published in the journal Brain and Cognition, constantly looking at food stimulates the neural, physiological, and behavioral responses linked to it. And this overstimulation can exacerbate “physiological hunger” way too often.

In other words, looking at pictures of food can make you crave it — whether or not you’re actually hungry.

And previous research has shown that food is one of the most effective stimuli for changing brain activity. Remember Pavlov’s dog?

In fact, the lead author of the report in Brain and Cognition, Charles Spence, is an Oxford scholar who says he has lent his expertise to food manufacturers to help them develop products and marketing that will stimulate our appetites. Because when a food looks beautiful and appetizing, it’s hard to resist craving it. And thus, easy for food companies to sell.

See, I told you there was a conspiracy. Food manufacturers indeed manipulate us — there’s no doubt about it. This is one of the primary reasons I’m always saying that food should be regulated as closely as any other addictive substance.

But we also have to take some responsibility. It’s not just the food industry who’s guilty of contributing to this adoration of food.

How many times have you posted photos of food to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the like?  I know I have (though usually it’s to make fun of an obscenely giant portion of something). But posting photos of food is now so popular it has its own term: “foodstagramming.”

And then you have the whole “celebrity chef” phenomenon. I forget where, but I recently read that last time chefs were so revered in human culture was right before the fall of the Roman Empire.

I’m guilty of this deification myself. In fact, a couple of years ago, I went to a show where Anthony Bourdain was interviewing Jacques Pepin. Jacques, being old school, was very modest and said time and time again that he was merely a cook. Bourdain was much more serious about the art of cooking. It was an interesting interview and I am glad I witnessed it—but honestly folks, giving food this level of importance in the cultural zeitgeist has to have some effect.

Ideally, it would have the effect of desensitizing us to desire and cravings. Unfortunately, so far it hasn’t.

But you don’t have to be a victim. It is possible to for you to put mind over matter when it comes to controlling the external influences over your cravings. We can’t change how pervasive food has become in our society. But you CAN change how you respond to it.

Perhaps it’s time to switch off the Food Network and scroll past those drool-worthy photos on your “news” feed.


Brain and Cognition: Sept. 2015 “Eating with our eyes: From visual hunger to digital satiation”