Photo-sharing apps such as Instagram and Pinterest—with mouth-watering shots of strawberry tiramisu pancakes and char-grilled cheeseburgers—have become, for many of us, a form of food porn. We feel our salivary glands squiriting in anticipation as if our tongues are about to taste what we see.
Contrary to what you might think, however, partaking in such visual pleasures doesn’t appear to lead to more eating; in fact, it might ultimately reduce our appetite and the pleasure we get from the photographed food.
A recent finding from Brigham Young University suggests that clicking through dozens of food photos can make those foods less enjoyable to eat later on. In the study involving 232 volunteers, the researchers did a series of experiments to test whether seeing multiple photos of tempting sweet and salty snacks would dull a person’s appetite for them. Those who were shown 60 photos of salty foods, such as chips, pretzels, or fries, were less likely to report that they enjoyed eating a few salty peanuts at the end of the experiment than the volunteers who were shown 60 photos of sweet foods such as cake and chocolate, according to the results published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
“In a way, you’re becoming tired of that taste without even eating the food,” said study co-author Ryan Elder. “It’s sensory boredom—you’ve kind of moved on. You don’t want that taste experience anymore.”
Does this mean we’ll be more likely to skip dessert if we scroll through cheesecake photos on Instagram while waiting for a table at the Olive Garden?
“Theoretically, someone who has a weakness for a particular type of unhealthy food could use our results to make him or herself less susceptible to that craving, but whether that could lead to weight loss would have to be tested,” said study co-author Jeff Larson, who along with Elder is a marketing professor at Brigham Young.
He’s not ready to start touting the benefits of the “Instagram Diet”—a label conferred on the research by ABC’s Good Morning America news show.
While obesity experts would agree with Larson’s hesitation, the notion of visualizing eating our favorite foods to stave off cravings isn’t new. A 2010 study published in the journal Science found that people who carefully imagined eating M&Ms—picking each one up, putting it in their mouth, chewing, and swallowing—wound up eating fewer of the candies afterward compared with when they were given the treat without first thinking about consuming them.
This likely has something to do with the reward pathways in the brain that get triggered by the enjoyment we receive from eating delicious foods, said Dr. Caroline Apovian, a director of the nutrition and weight management center at Boston Medical Center. Hunger that drives us to consume calories for energy, on the other hand, is controlled by other parts of the brain—our body’s way of demanding that we feed it real, not imaginary, food.
Apovian called the new food photo study “very intriguing” and “well designed” and said she hoped it would be repeated using brain imaging techniques to determine whether those reward pathways are indeed activated by visualizing food.
“That would explain,” she added, “how looking at photos of foods we crave would satisfy those cravings.”
Apovian doesn’t use Instagram in her own practice treating obese patients, but she does employ mindful eating techniques, which follow the same principles of getting people to focus on the pleasure of eating.
“You can consume an entire bowl of popcorn in front of the TV and have no idea how much you’ve eaten until the bowl is empty,” she said. On the other hand, taking a single popped kernel to gaze at, sniff, and hold in your mouth until it melts, will heighten the taste and pleasure of the experience—and will also likely cause you to eat a far smaller portion.
If you happen to stare at some popcorn photos on Pinterest before partaking, so much the better.