Social media users are more likely to “copy” the eating habits of their friends, researchers have claimed.

Experts from Aston University asked over 360 students to estimate the amount of fruit, vegetables, ‘energy-dense’ snacks, and sugary drinks their Facebook peers consume on a daily basis.

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The information was then cross-referenced with the participants’ own actual eating habits, with the results showing that those who felt their social circles “approved” of eating junk food consumed significantly more themselves. Yet, those who believed their friends ate a healthy diet, consumed more portions of fruit and vegetables.

“Their perceptions could have come from seeing friends’ posts about the food and drink they consumed, or simply a general impression of their overall health,” the study authors commented, adding that results show that people eat around a third more junk food if they think their pals also indulge.

There was no significant link between the participants’ eating habits and their Body Mass Index (BMI).

“This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realise when choosing certain foods. We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices,” health psychology PhD student Lily Hawkins said. “So, if we believe our friends are eating plenty of fruit and veg we’re more likely to eat fruit and veg ourselves. On the other hand, if we feel they’re happy to consume lots of snacks and sugary drinks, it can give us a ‘licence to overeat’ foods that are bad for our health.

“The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to ‘nudge’ each other’s eating behaviour within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions.”

Full study results have been published in the journal Appetite.

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