Pictures of people eating and drinking are a staple of social media, but new research has found that such posts from celebrities often highlight junk food.
Investigators have found that profit isn’t always the reason behind it: Celebrities often highlight favorite unhealthy foods without getting paid for it.
Study lead author Bradley Turnwald noted that “Ninety-five percent of the food and drink images on celebrity Instagram profiles were not sponsored by food or beverage companies.” “They were normal images of celebrities eating and drinking in their daily lives.”
Celebrities, he said, “exist in societies that value and normalize unhealthy eating and alcohol consumption, like you or me.” They have the right to publish whatever they want online, added Turnwald, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
However, they’re often likable, he said, and “just following celebrities on social media exposes followers to an unhealthy food and drink profile.”
In the midst of an obesity epidemic, Turnwald added, this is a recipe for disaster — “a disaster that cannot easily be resolved by banning ads or nutritional care on social media, given that most of these posts don’t include either.”
For the study, researchers tracked all food and drink-related posts that 181 athletes, actors, television personalities, and musicians posted on Instagram between May 2019 and March 2020. Ages ranged from 17 to 73, with half of them younger than 32.
More than 3,000 food-related publications have been cited, containing approximately 5,200 different foods and beverages. Slightly more than half contained only drinks, and more than half of those drinks contained alcohol. Slightly more than a third appeared snacks or sweets.
Nutrition profiles were configured for all foods and drinks found, paying particular attention to sugar, salt, calories, saturated fat, fiber, protein, and fruit and/or vegetable content.
The result: nearly 90% of celebrity food and drink posts were unhealthy enough to be illegal under current UK advertising regulations relating to youth, the researchers noted. Less than 5% of all food/drink related posts were associated with paid sponsorship by the food or beverage manufacturer.
The researchers also noted that celebrity posts that included relatively healthy food choices were less likely to receive “likes” or comments from followers.
Turnwald noted that “to the extent that celebrities want to boost follower engagement, less healthy foods generated greater follower engagement, which creates an additional incentive for celebrities to post less healthy foods.”
The results were published Wednesday in the JAMA Network Open.
The findings don’t surprise Dr. Elaine Silky, an accompanying editorial author and assistant professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
“This reflects a culture that elevates foods high in sugar and fat by making them visually appealing,” Silky noted. “Because Instagram is a visual platform, it makes sense for celebrities to post visually appealing food photos.”
However, “real” celebrity food posts may be less realistic than they seem, she said, given that “in fact, most celebrities are likely to eat more healthy food – [including] Fruits and vegetables – what they post about.”
There is only one possible solution, Silky said. This would be to encourage social media platforms to adopt algorithms that favor more nutritious food posts by giving them a higher profile than bad food posts.
“This may motivate celebrities to post more of this type of content,” she explained.
But another food and nutrition expert has a simpler recommendation.
“Don’t get your nutrition advice from celebrities or athletes,” advised Luna Sandon, MD, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Sandon, who was not part of the study, noted that what people see in the media influences their decisions and beliefs about certain foods or diets.
“Celebrities and athletes can be very powerful role models, especially for young teens,” she said.
Referring to the popular “Have you got milk?” A campaign, Sandon said, included a strong media message aimed at getting children and teens to drink more milk.
“It would be great to see more of this kind,” she said. “Maybe it’s the ‘Got Fruit’ campaign.”
Sandon acknowledged that while it’s helpful to see more celebrities posting about healthy ways to eat, this isn’t their experience or their job.
Her suggestion: “If you want sound nutritional advice, instead follow one of the many registered dietitians – nutritionists – on social media.”
There’s more about healthy living in the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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