According to research from Aston University's School of Life and Health Sciences, study participants ate an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables themselves for every portion they thought their social media peers ate. So, if they believed their friends got their 'five a day' of fruit and veg, they were likely to eat an extra portion themselves.
This might indicate that social media users are more likely to eat fruit and veg if they think their friends do the same.
But conversely, the Facebook users were found to consume an extra portion of unhealthy snack foods and sugary drinks for every three portions they believed their online social circles did. The finding suggests we eat around a third more junk food if we think our friends also indulge.
The Aston University researchers said the findings provide the first evidence to suggest our online social circles could be implicitly influencing our eating habits, with important implications for using 'nudge' techniques on social media to encourage healthy eating.
In the study, published in the scientific journal Appetite, the researchers asked 369 university students to estimate the amount of fruit, vegetables, 'energy-dense snacks' and sugary drinks their Facebook peers consumed on a daily basis.
This information was cross-referenced with the participants' own actual eating habits and showed that those who felt their social circles 'approved' of eating junk food consumed significantly more themselves. Meanwhile, those who thought their friends ate a healthy diet ate more portions of fruit and veg. Their perceptions could have come from seeing friends' posts about the food and drink they consumed, or simply a general impression of their overall health.
According to an article on sciencedaily.com, there was no significant link between the participants' eating habits and their Body Mass Index (BMI), a standard measure of healthy weight, however. The researchers said the next stage of their work would track a participant group over time to see whether the influence of social media on eating habits had a longer-term impact on weight.