Celebrities' Social Media Food Posts Largely Unhealthy: Study

Aine Cryts

January 13, 2022

Since the term "influencer" entered the global vernacular, celebrities have used their social media to engage millions of fans. Many look to their idols for what to wear, what places to visit, and even how to look.

But what about what to eat?

That's where a study in JAMA Network Open comes in. Researchers' analysis of 3065 social media posts by 181 "highly followed" celebrities on Instagram revealed that 87% of posts showed unhealthy items, such as alcoholic beverages, snacks, and sweets.

Researchers determined which celebrities were "highly followed" by choosing 200 of the most popular celebrities from the ESPN 2018 World Fame 100, 2018 Billboard year-end top 100 artists, 2018 Internet Movie Database, and the social media tracking platform Trackalytics' most followed profiles.

While celebrities earn millions of dollars in sponsored posts, most of the food and beverage posts included in the study weren't sponsored, Bradley Turnwald, PhD, the lead author and a principal researcher at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, tells Medscape Medical News. In fact, only 4.8% of celebrities' posts were sponsored.

Turnwald drew attention to the responsibility celebrities have in choosing the foods and beverages to feature on their social media accounts.

"It's not just advertisements that expose viewers to alcoholic beverages and unhealthy foods," he said. "We need to be mindful of the foods and beverages that are depicted on social media as parts of everyday life, because these posts have the potential to influence what viewers perceive as normative and valued in our culture."

And physicians have been working to counter that information. For example, a patient-friendly handout developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians touts the benefits of a healthy diet. The benefits include weight loss, the prevention of heart disease and cancer, and lower cholesterol levels, in addition to improved ability to focus, increased energy, and improved mood.

Foods and beverages were rated on the basis of two nutrition rating systems that are used in UK advertising law. First, the Nutrient Profile Index (NPI), which relies on the amount of sugar, sodium, energy, saturated fat, fiber, protein, and fruit and/or vegetable content per 100-g sample; an NPI score of 0 translates to least healthy, while 100 means the healthiest food. Second, the "front-of-package traffic light" labeling guidelines, which use traffic light colors to classify the healthiness of foods; while a green traffic light denotes foods that are low in sugar, saturated fat, total fat, and sodium, a red traffic light signifies foods that are high in these characteristics.

Additional findings from the study include the following:

  • Male and female celebrities were equally likely to post about healthy foods or beverages; male celebrities had an average NPI score of 53, while female celebrities had an average NPI score of 52.1.

  • Female celebrities shared photos of foods with higher sugar content. Male celebrities tended to post foods with higher sodium content and lower fiber content; males were also more likely to post higher alcohol content.

  • Snacks and sweets were three times more likely to be included in posts than any other type of food; that was followed by fruits, proteins, mixed dishes (featuring items such as sandwiches, pasta, pizza, meat, and soups), vegetables, and grains.

A UK law preventing TV ads about junk foods before 9 PM takes effect at the end of 2022. The UK joins a number of countries in taking a proactive approach in restricting advertisements of unhealthy foods and beverages to young people, says Turnwald. The study used the UK guidelines to put the results into context.

Turnwald says he was surprised that half of the beverages featured in celebrities' Instagram photos were alcoholic beverages. "We expected alcoholic beverages to be common, but this was higher than we expected," he says.

Per the study, the finding on the prevalence of posts about alcohol is consistent with research about how easy it is for young people to view alcohol content on social media and that the posts are typically associated with positive attributes. A 2011 study found that young people who saw alcohol use as normative on social media were more likely to drink alcohol.

The study assessed the Instagram accounts of 66 actors, actresses, and TV personalities, 64 musicians, and 51 athletes.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online January 12, 2022. Full text

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