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Instagram food
A screen grab of food images posted on Instagram. (Instagram Photo / @ww_southerngirl86)

Whether your eyes roll or your stomach grumbles at the site of yet another food photo on Instagram, the popular practice appears to provide some benefit to people who are looking to meet healthy eating or fitness goals.

A study by researchers at the University of Washington found that there’s more to a random banana and yogurt photo than meets the eye. The platform can serve as a creative and more fun way track food intake while also allowing users to be held accountable by followers who have a shared interest in eating right, losing weight, etc.

UW Today reported the news Wednesday and said a paper detailing the findings will be presented next month at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The aim is to use the results to inform the design of tools to support healthy behaviors.

“The benefit of photos is that it’s more fun to do than taking out a booklet or typing hundreds of words of description in an app,” said Christina Chung, lead author and a UW human centered design and engineering doctoral student. “Plus, it’s more socially appropriate for people who are trying to track their diets to snap a photo of their plate when they’re out with friends — everyone’s doing it and it doesn’t look weird.”

She’s certainly got that right — everyone does seem to be doing it. A quick scan of my own Instagram feed produced recent pictures of pizza, a bag of Doritos, beer, pancakes, more beer and lots of other stuff. I guess I’m not shooting stuff to inspire anyone to lose weight!

But users profiled in the study, using hashtags such as #fooddiary or #foodjournal, said they received social and emotional support from other Instagram users and that helped them stick to their own tracking and healthy eating goals. UW Today says a woman who previously relied on an app to track her diet would cheat and not log certain items.

“With Instagram, it helped me because I was taking a picture of it — it’s real and it does exist and it does count towards what I was eating,” the woman said. “And then putting up a visual image of it really helped me stay honest.”

The fact that Instagram allows users to create separate feeds under the same profile was encouraging to users as well, Chung said, because people didn’t have to worry about overwhelming regular followers with food pictures and could channel that content toward a specific audience.

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