The famous expression “We eat first with our eyes,” said by the notorious gastronomist Apicius in the 1st Century, is as relevant as ever. Our everyday virtual lives are populated by photos, images and colors, and working on a well-presented dish or food has progressively increased in importance. Together with the need to elevate a dish to a glamorous object, there is also a tremendous rise in people’s obsession with taking photos of what they are about to eat and share them on social media. Even restaurant owners have endorsed this madness, from allowing clients to enter the kitchen to shoot more professional photos, to  providing diners camera stands and a set to obtain the perfect image to post online. 

People’s overexposure to food led scientists to study the implications of such image overload on appetite, health and food habits. In this light, they coined the term “visual hunger” to describe the urge to see food images and the subsequent sensation of hunger even if satiated. But why does this happen? Because, during evolution, our brain learnt that seeing food usually meant that we were about to eat that food. In response, it began to activate different responses to prepare the body to eat that meal. 

Three major body responses are triggered by the sight of food: 

  1. the physiological ones, like increased salivation, changes in heart rate, and even insulin secretion
  2. the emotional ones, like a desire to eat and the urge of survival that are directly associated with ingesting food 
  3. the cognitive ones, associated with recalling pleasant moments of previous eating experiences
Taking food photograph by mobile smart phone, and sharing on social media, social network with notification icons
‘Visual hunger’ is the desire to look at pictures of food and the subsequent need to eat even if not physically hungry.

To these three responses, it is fundamental to add another sensation called chemesthesis; this phenomenon doesn’t belong to the sphere of taste and smell but it’s described as chemical sensitivity in skin and mucous membranes. This sensitivity is triggered, for example, by CO2 in carbonated drinks (causing nose tingling), by capsaicin in chili pepper (causing your mouth to sting) and even by menthol freshness in mouthwashes. The memory of these sensations are also evoked by food pictures!

What are the risks of being overexposed to food images daily? First of all: stimulating our physiological hunger way too often, leading to overeating and mining our physical and physiological well-being. As a matter of fact, a 2016 study showed that food-related advertisements boost food consumption with no concern for food quality; the only requisite is to satisfy the craving with whatever food is at hand. This behavior is considered a consequence of virtual hunger and underlines a food consumption habit that has become automatic: I see food – I crave food – I eat whatever food I can find around me. Clearly, this behavior is exacerbated when people are actually hungry! Physiological hunger, together with sensations evoked by food images, leads to a desperate need of food. Indeed, around 70% of the food eaten by American families derives from choices made according to what they found advertised on social media. 

It has also been seen that the visual stimulus of food may alter the actual flavor of the food we are consuming. This happens because our body is, in some way, “distracted” by food colors and perceives flavor more or less intensely according to color impact. Food flavor perception is also influenced by the way food is plated. Research conducted by The Culinary Institute of America found that displaying the same ingredients on a plate but in different ways, alters not only people’s flavor perception but also the amount of food on the plate consumed.

Young asian woman takeaway eating junk food unhealthy on couch watching tv series eatery fast food and drinking in living room enjoy happiness at home.
Overexposure to food images can lead to overeating and can cause our perception of flavor to change.

Resisting food temptations coming from social media stimuli seems to be more difficult for those overweight or obese. They, in fact, seem to be more vulnerable to food depictions due to the activation of the so-called reward system; the latter is the result of complicated mechanisms happening in our brain, involving a molecule called dopamine. In a nutshell, when we eat something we particularly like, dopamine tells our brain how much we loved that food and our brain diligently registers this sensation, evoking a sense of gratification. This need of gratification seems to be more pronounced in overweight/obese people, making it more difficult for them to resist that food temptation they see advertised.  Also, according to Finnish research, it seems that individuals with a higher BMI are more vulnerable to food stimuli compared to people of normal weight, maybe due to their higher need for energy, thus becoming more likely to fall into temptation.

Another incredible discovery, made by the University of Oxford, is that individuals’ attention is caught by high-fat food images rather than healthy or low-fat food. The reason is to be found in the brain’s ability to perceive the energetic value of food according to previous experiences. Plus, since fat-rich foods show a more pleasant appearance, the brain is able to match this pleasantness with the caloric intake, exerting a sort of alert for upcoming beneficial effects from food anticipation. 

But when does the effective power of social media play its best role? When users start comparing themselves to each other. A 2015 study lay the foundation for better understanding the actual influence of social media images on people’s eating habits. It pointed out that comparing personal food habits to others may lead to perceive our unhealthy behaviors as normal. For example: eating pizza three times a week could seem normal if my homepage is filled with other people eating pizza as well. Once in this vicious circle, it’s very difficult to exit since we have no opposition.

Woman lying on couch using food delivery app on smartphone. Close up of african woman hands holding cellphone and ordering food online. Girl using smart phone to get home delivered take away lunch.
Our social feeds can predict our food choices.

The whole idea behind this first study has been validated by more recent research that claims we are more prone to follow the food habits and consume the food categories we see most on our social feeds. Researchers pointed out that it is possible to predict our food habits according to our Facebook feed. However, psychology researchers from two major UK universities, theorized the utility of social media in conveying helpful messages to help people deal with food disorders or incorrect food habits. In their study, English researchers demonstrated that comparison to other people’s behaviors toward food habits could lead to two kinds of results: people will use peer habits as a guide and follow their example or people will use others’ habits to be accepted into a social group. Both of these strategies can be used to convey correct eating habits and push food education further. 

To sum up, we should remember that the correlation between social media food images and eating habits is based on four aspects that correspond to four psychological theories developed over the years:

  1. Social learning theory = says that people learn by seeing other people’s behaviors. Seeing a food image with many likes leads people to think they can  become popular if they eat that food. 
  2. Priming theory = says that food influence on people can occur without them knowing. Being victim of a well-presented food is the brain’s fault, which recalls previous pleasant feelings and connects them with what you are seeing.  
  3. Attention theory= says that different people are affected differently by food. One example is overweight/obese people who are more susceptible to food cravings after seeing food pictures.
  4. Reward theory = says that people’s actions are guided by reward. One example is that those overweight/obese are more prone to be tempted by food images because, compared to people of normal weight, they perceive more satisfaction from the food they see.

So, after learning all the tricky effects food pictures have on us and on our hunger, how can you avoid falling down a rabbit hole everytime you look at food pictures?

  • If you feel hungry, avoid scrolling-down your social media. Eat before going back to your socials.
  • Craving a certain type of food every day for days? Why not make a social media analysis of the food-related accounts you’re following? You’ll probably find the source of that craving and you can decide whether to give in or to stop following certain accounts.
  • Are you practicing intermittent fasting? Check the pages you’re following and consider unfollowing the food-porn ones. Follow the accounts displaying healthy habits, natural food and balanced food recipes that can help you to stay on track.