Feb. 7 (UPI) -- "Liking" healthy foods on social media platforms like Facebook may encourage others to eat a balanced diet, new research has found.
In a study published Thursday in the journal Appetite, scientists from the School of Life and Health Sciences at Ashton University in England observed that participants ate an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables themselves for every portion they thought their social media peers ate.
Conversely, social media users are also more likely to snack on junk food if they think their friends are doing the same.
"This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realize when choosing certain foods," study co-author and Ashton doctoral student Lily Hawkins said in a press release. "We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices."
The findings suggest that social media users essentially "copy" friends' eating habits, she added.
For the study, the research team 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.
They then cross-referenced this information 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 -- in fact, an extra portion of unhealthy snack foods and sugary drinks for every three portions they believed their online social circles did.
Meanwhile, those who thought their friends ate a healthy diet had more portions of fruit and vegetables. These habits could have developed from seeing friends' posts about the food and drink they consumed, or simply a general impression of their overall health.
There was no significant link between the participants' eating habits and their body mass index, an indicator of weight. 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 and overall health.
The researchers said the findings to date 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.
"The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to 'nudge' each other's eating behavior within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions," Hawkins said.
"With children and young people spending a huge amount of time interacting with peers and influencers via social media, the important new findings from this study could help shape how we deliver interventions that help them adopt healthy eating habits from a young age -- and stick with them for life," added Claire Farrow, director of Aston University's Applied Health Research Group.