People turn to Instagram to eat healthier, UW study says

Two people photographing their food in a café with their smartphones. (Photo: Getty Images)
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In a new study released by the University of Washington, researchers found that by posting pictures of food on Instagram, some users achieve their healthy eating and weight loss goals.

Researchers talked with 16 Instagram users who consistently keep track of their meals by posting photos of them online, and discussed with them how using the app can be both efficient and difficult. 

Christina Chung, lead author of the project and a doctoral student in the UW human centered design and engineering department, said in a statement from the UW that it's more "fun" and "socially appropriate" to take pictures of meals instead of using a traditional food journal. 

"Everyone's doing it and it doesn't look weird," Chung said. 

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The aesthetic aspect also contributes to one's pursuit of healthy living by tracking trends and behaviors. Due to Instagram's grid presentation format, one is able to follow their progress visually and with greater perspective compared to apps with just a single-entry format. 

For example, one woman who used the MyFitnessPal app to track her diet said that Instagram helped her reach her goal because she was able to actually see everything she had eaten, which made it feel "real" and "helped me stay honest." 

The idea of reality and honesty resonated with other study participants, who, according to the UW, reported it was easy to find online communities with similar interests using the hashtags #fooddiary and #foodjournal. 

After meeting their nutritional goals, many participants found that mentoring a fellow foodies online was very fulfilling and helped them continue to meet their own standards. 

“[It makes] things more interesting and meaningful for people," said Sean Munson, senior author and assistant professor of human centered design and engineering at the UW. "After they got to their goal, they turned to thinking about how they could help others and stay accountable to people who were relying on them for support."

The results of the study will be revealed in a paper to be presented at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in May. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a University of Washington Innovation Research Award, and Microsoft.