When you flip through the recipes on Pinterest, you think the 450 million users are healthy nuts obsessed with low calorie dishes. But like a lot of things on social media, looks are deceptive.
A new study from the College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University shows that there is a huge difference between the recipes Pinterest users post and the ones they actually make. While they publicly “like” and “nail” healthy recipes, the dishes they end up cooking are high in fat, sugar, and calories. The researchers say this poses an interesting problem for people who care about public health. Social media has the power to create social norms to promote healthy lifestyles, but many people fail to make the leap into actually healthier lives.
The U.S. government spends billions of dollars annually trying to change the diets of Americans as studies show that doing so can have a powerful impact on improving people’s overall health. It has invested in a National School Lunch program since 1946 and published nutritional guidelines to educate Americans. This has led to some success: Between 2003 and 2016, Americans reduced their daily sugar intake by 4.8 teaspoons and increased their whole grain consumption.
In this new article, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers suggest that social media could be another powerful tool in this nutritional creation effort because we are all in it. In the United States, 98 million people use Pinterest every month, which is 18% of the adult population. The platform has become a popular recipe sharing website. More than 60% of users said they created a new recipe that was inspired by something they saw on the website. “There are tremendous opportunities to influence healthy behavior on social media,” Hong Xue, the lead researcher, said in a statement. “We are only just beginning to understand its potential and its pitfalls.”
Last summer, the researchers analyzed food content on Pinterest. (They didn’t work directly with the platform on this project, they just collected publicly available comments, captions, photos, and videos from the site.) They found that Pinterest has a culture of promoting healthy recipes: nutritious recipes that Low in calories, sodium and sugar, and lots of vegetables and lean meats were typically rewarded with repins and likes, motivating users to share more of this content. However, when the researchers tracked the engagement they measured from comments and photos or videos of meals that were actually cooked, the majority opted for recipes with more sugar and fat.
Social media encourages people to present an aspirational version of themselves to the public, but everyday reality often tells a different story. “They are more likely to adhere to an elite social norm set by celebrities and influencers to promote healthier, low-calorie, clean diets,” Xue said. “We see a completely different picture. They comment on and publish ready-made photos of the less healthy recipes. “
The researchers say the distinction between users who post healthy recipes but cook unhealthy food is important to anyone in charge of promoting healthy habits on social media – including the government, doctors, and nutritionists.
So how do they bridge the gap between what users want and what they actually do? According to Xue, users tended to comment on and engage with recipes that they believed tasted good, and many people seemed to believe that healthy recipes didn’t taste great. (Search terms like “yummy” and “yummy” were more likely to lead to unhealthy recipes.) So one solution is to emphasize the taste of a dish, not just how healthy it is. “To change perception, public health professionals need to make healthy food a pleasure, not the other way around.”
Xue said health organizations and fitness professionals shouldn’t just post healthy recipes on social media. Instead, they should take a second look at recipes that are popular with users and see if they can make them more nutritious. “If users are into unhealthy recipes, influencers should potentially offer options to reduce fat as part of those recipes,” he says.