Food diaries are helpful, but tedious and time sucking. Researchers have found something that works just as well, and it's kinda fun.
Social media is full of annoying people desperately seeking attention, validation, and likes. But there is an upside to photo-sharing apps like Instagram: they can keep your diet plan on target.
Researchers out of the University of Washington looked at the behaviors of people who use Instagram as a food log. These people take quick photos of everything they consume, from meals to snacks to calorie-containing drinks.
This includes the healthier foods that are part of their plans, but also any "off the wagon" foods they eat if their willpower takes a crap. Some of them log the calories and macros later in the day, but most of them only use the pics as their log.
The first thing researchers found is that people were more likely to be consistent with this method of tracking. Keeping a handwritten log or typing everything into an app has its benefits, but it can become monotonous, even obsessive. But taking photos with your phone? Easy, fast, and even kinda fun.
The Grid Effect
Then there's something we'll call the grid effect. "When you only have one data point for a pizza or donut, it's easy to rationalize that away as a special occasion," said senior author Sean Munson. "But when you see a whole tiled grid of them, you have to say to yourself, 'Wait, I don't actually have that many special days.'"
If you're honest and consistent, you'll see patterns in your dietary behavior.
Mindfulness, or "Did I Really Eat That?"
Just like a traditional food diary, you'll become more mindful with a photo log. Mindfulness is key for people new to healthy eating. Setting the rule, "If I'm going to eat it I have to take a photo of it and post it publically" can be powerful.
No more mindlessly polishing off your kids' leftovers or eating those free office doughnuts that "don't count" because they're not part of an official meal.
Accountability: Personal and Social
Researchers also noted the photo log's effects on accountability. There's an old joke about hiring a diet coach: you do it not for the magical plan he or she gives you, but because you need someone to hold you accountable. It's not really a joke. It's at least half the reason people pay diet coaches.
Well, the Instagram food log serves the same purpose... for free. You're more likely to hold yourself accountable, and if not, your followers will hold you accountable. Just knowing that others with your same goals are looking over your shoulder can help. Call it positive peer pressure.
Many of the subjects of this recent study also reported that once they met their own goals, they were able to maintain their fat loss by helping others. It becomes an upward spiral of reinforcement.
Photographed Foods Taste Better Too
In related studies, researchers found that when people take photos of their healthy foods, they perceive these foods as tastier, making it easier to change dietary habits and stick to their plans.
This is probably related to another psychological phenomenon: studies show that when you cook a meal yourself, you think it tastes better AND it's more satiating. Some call this the IKEA effect: I put it together so it must be awesome!
Ready to Try It?
Here are some ideas and things to watch for:
- You may want to start a new account just for your food log. (Instagram allows for multiple accounts.) That way you won't bore your friends and family to death. Plus it'll allow you to take advantage of the grid effect without the flow of food being interrupted by photos of your dog or your endless car selfies.
You can keep this account private and only let certain people view it, or you can open it up to anyone. You could even have it just for yourself. Many of the benefits can be had even without the social support and public accountability, like mindfulness.
- Use hashtags. #Foodjournal and #fooddiary are common, but narrow it down. Using a specific style of dieting? Find the popular hashtags for that. This will help you get new followers to offer you advice, cheer you on, or kick your cheating ass... whatever works for your psychological profile.
- Be honest. If it contains calories and nutrients, take a photo of it. Even the cheat foods. Even the sample of Tofurkey nuggets they were passing out at Whole Foods.
- Contest dieters, like bodybuilders and figure competitors, will usually need something more precise than simple photos, but photo food logs can still give you an edge when you're about to gnaw your ankle off. Use one along with your notebook or tracking app.
- Hate social media? Head over to the T Nation discussion forum and start your log there. We won't bite.
- University of Washington. "Food photos help Instagram users with healthy eating." ScienceDaily, 2017.