Putting Pictures Of Your Food On Instagram Is Making You FAT, Says Obesity Researcher

A Canadian psychologist says that sharing photos of your food on social media may signal a "deeper medical issue." I can't make this stuff up.
Publish date:
May 6, 2013
fat, food, Instagram, social media, body politics

Some time ago I had an Internet conversation with a person who attempted to make sweeping generalizations of my eating habits based on the pictures on my Twitter.

Now if my Twitter were a more comprehensive chronicle of the food I eat, they might have had something to go on. But I, like most people, don’t necessarily take pictures of the nutritional-yeast-enhanced popcorn I had for lunch, or the 17 various forms of pickles I’d consumed over the course of the day (only slightly exaggerating) -- I generally take pictures of food that I find interesting, or that I think would be interesting to other people.

Thus, at the time, my Twitter feed included pictures of a canister of “Marshamallow Bitz” (which I guess are as close an answer to the childhood question of “Why can’t I just buy a whole box of Lucky Charms marshmallows with none of the boring cereal included?” as we’re ever going to get) and a prepackaged mass-produced version of Turducken, which I didn’t know you could find assembled by machine and biding its time in the meat case, relaxing in a bath of salted water and its own juices inside a sealed plastic jacket.

I took pictures of these things, and others, because I thought they were funny and sort of weird, and because I wasn’t actually buying them (I don’t even know how Turducken WORKS, guys) the images provided a nice reference point for that time I saw that cool thing that I might not ever see again.

Indeed, this same logic works for non-strange food. I am not much of a plate-picture-taker myself -- mostly because my foodie skils are not great but also because the lighting in most restaurants sucks for photography, no matter how delicious (and expensive) the fully-locally-sourced orichiette pasta with sausage and this crazy good pesto I just ordered may be. (Also I’ll admit I’m always a little confused when people take food pictures BEFORE they eat anything, because what if it sucks? Then you have a picture of food that sucked. That is depressing.)

But sometimes you want to document a meal (or a day, or a moment) before it is literally gone forever.

Well, one Canadian obesity researcher thinks you should stop. Dr. Valerie Taylor is the mental health chair of the Canadian Obesity Network (no, it’s not a fatty friend-finder, I was disappointed too) and she believes that some people who take pictures of their food for the purpose of sharing the images on social networks “may have a deeper medical issue,” according to this short article about her recent Canadian Obesity Summit (again, not a fun gathering of Canada’s awesomest fat people, alas) presentation in Vancouver.

Dr. Valerie Taylor said many post pictures of food because they enjoy it, but some do it because food plays a significant role in their lives.[...]"For some people who have the predisposition for weight behaviours, [taking and sharing pictures] just goes that one step further, and they start to develop unhealthy weight disorders and they start to have weight problems."Taylor said people don't eat food for its nutritional value alone.Research has shown food has a more psychological role in people's daily lives, which is one of the main causes of obesity today, she said.

I am strongly resisting the urge to classify this as ridiculous made-up nonsense, even though that sure is how it’s sounding to me. I am instead hoping that Taylor’s actual presentation made more sense than this short summation of it.

But since this is all we have to go on, let’s assess these points.

First, food plays a “significant” and psychological role in EVERYBODY’s lives, if they’re taking pictures of it or not. Whether you are a super snobby foodie-pants, whether you are a macrobiotic health freak, whether you have an eating disorder, whether you are on a diet, whether you have an illness (chronic or otherwise), whether you’re a juice nerd, whether you are fat or thin or anywhere in between, whether you think of food as medicine, whether you are rich and can afford the finest trends, or poor and half your dinners come from the food bank, whether you are resentful of food and the need to eat, or whether you relish every meal -- food is significant in your life.

You probably need to account for food at least a couple times a day. Since you were born, it’s unlikely that more than a handful of consecutive hours have passed in which you didn’t think, however briefly, about food. I mean, at the barest minimum, food is “significant” to your life on a level with the significance of water and oxygen, as these are things you require, biologically, to survive.

More than that, I don’t think it’s a huge leap to suggest that food is a powerful psychological issue for the majority of people, regardless of weight. If you’ve ever eaten or referred to “comfort food,” you’ve acknowledged food’s psychological effects. If you’ve ever had a parent or a family member or friend make you soup when you were sick, you know the power of food, especially food prepared by someone who cares about you, to make you feel things.

I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t have at least some psychological baggage, positive or otherwise, around certain foods -- even people who do try to eat less for enjoyment and more for peak performance tend to have mental reckonings of foods that are “good” and “bad.”

(It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Seriously, can we stop pretending food issues are not incredibly common? All this defensive refusal does is make people feel isolated for having weirdnesses around certain foods, which then stunts their ability to confront said weirdnesses and maybe learn to manage them more effectively, or to change them, or to get over them altogether.)

Food can have negative psychological effects too -- ask anyone who has a “texture thing” about certain foods. And never put cooked mushrooms in anything you make for me because I will immediately vomit. Sorry. Nothing personal. It’s a texture thing.

Food’s psychological import makes sense -- when we were still living in caves and hunting and killing our own meat, it would make sense that the feast to follow would create a sense of contentment, satiety, and calm. Because we needed to keep going out and hunting and killing our own meat. Our cave-living forbears didn’t know crap about “nutritional value” -- they ate because they were hungry and they would starve if they didn’t, and being full felt better than the alternative.

I don’t doubt that some folks who take food pictures have food issues -- I mean so many people have food issues of one kind or another, issues that are often normalized and accepted even when they are destructive, so long as they keep a person at a preferred weight. But I think it’s a stretch to suggest, as Taylor seems to do, that taking and sharing food pictures online is itself somehow a dangerous activity which may cause or at least contribute to negative “weight behaviours,” which seems to be code for “getting fat.”

Like many of you, I can scroll through my Instagram feed at pretty much any time of day and I’m going to see food pictures. And I’ve come to realize that people take food pictures for lots of different reasons.

Sometimes I participate too! A few weeks ago I uploaded a picture of a loaf of bread I just baked -- not because I am having a torrid relationship with my bread, but because I was proud of something I’d made. When my garden starts producing, my feed will become an endless string of produce pictures -- again, not because I’m abusing my produce, but because I never get tired of the simple magic of dropping some tiny seeds in soil, knowing that with the application of sunlight, water, and time, I will soon have vegetables.

I expect many people take pictures of food they’ve prepared for the same reason: to share that sense of accomplishment. (If someone else shares pictures of a sweater they’ve knitted, are they having an unhealthy relationship with yarn?) For people who take pictures of plated food in restaurants or in other social meal scenarios, the motivation may be to praise the chef, or to advertise this great dinner spot they’ve found, or to elicit jealousy (which is like 90% of why Instagram exists anyway -- the other 10% being cat pictures).

Are all of these reasons somehow psychologically invested in the food being presented? Sure! But couldn’t we say that about anything we photograph and share? Are millions of Instagram users having unhealthy relationships with their pets? Does Emily have an unhealthy relationship with trying on dresses? Does s.e. have an unhealthy realtionship with books? Does Marianne have an unhealthy relationship with her own hair? Do I have an unhealthy relationship with taking pictures of whatever shoes I’m wearing on a given day?

I mean, in some cases this may be true, but it some cases it’s not. You get where I’m going with this. You can’t diagnose a problem by looking at a person’s social media accounts. We share the things we want to share, either because they interest us, because we think they will interest the people who follow us, and because we think the sharing says something about the people we are. A person’s social media profile is, in most cases, a curated and even calculated portrayal of our lives -- there’s a reason I don’t upload pictures of my messy dining room table, or the pile of clean towels I still need to fold.

People take and share food pictures because that is just one of the things you DO with this media -- you document the parts of your life that are the most fabulous. So I think it’s a bit absurd to suggest that participation in what has become an incredibly popular social media ritual is somehow a health problem. Or that the food-photographers are somehow endangering themselves by taking that ominous step into sharing the pleasure they take in food with other people.

Taylor’s position has one glaring omission, after all: that food is often a pleasure -- that food has the power to be extremely pleasureable, has the power to make us feel good on our worst days, to make us feel present in our bodies when we are most in our heads. It is powerful enough that sometimes even just looking at a beautifully prepared meal can make spectators feel fleetingly happy. Taking pleasure in food is not unhealthy, or embarrassing, or shameful. It’s how things should be. And if photographing our plates is helping us to associate our food with pleasure and not guilt or shame or deprivation, then I am all for it.

Just without the mushrooms. Please.