Celebrity social media posts often promote junk food

According to a recent study, nearly 90% of celebrity food and drink posts on social media were unhealthy enough to be essentially illegal under current UK youth advertising regulations, the researchers pointed out. Photo by rawpixel/Pixabay

Images of people eating and drinking are a staple of social media, but new research reveals that such celebrity posts often focus on junk food.

Profit isn’t always the reason why, according to investigators: Celebrities often highlight unhealthy food favorites without being paid for it.

“Ninety-five percent of photos featuring food and drink on celebrities’ Instagram profiles were actually not sponsored by food or drink companies,” noted the study’s lead author. , Bradley Turnwald. “They were natural representations of celebrities eating and drinking in their daily lives.”

Celebrities, he said, “exist in societies that value and normalize unhealthy eating and drinking, just like you or me.” And they have the right to post whatever they want online, added Turnwald, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Still, they’re often idolized, he said, and “just following celebrities on social media exposes followers to an unhealthy food and drink profile.”

In the midst of an obesity epidemic, this is a recipe for disaster, Turnwald added – “a disaster that cannot be easily solved by simply banning food advertising or sponsorship on social media, given that most of these posts involve neither.”

For the study, investigators tracked all food and drink-related posts made by 181 athletes, actors, TV personalities, and musicians on Instagram between May 2019 and March 2020. Ages ranged from 17 to 73, half are under 32 years old.

More than 3,000 celebrity food-related posts were cited, containing nearly 5,200 different foods and beverages. Just over half contained only drinks, with more than half containing alcohol. Just over a third offered snacks or sweets.

Nutrient profiles have been compiled for all foods and beverages found, with particular attention paid to sugar, salt, calories, saturated fat, fiber, protein, and fruit and/or vegetable content

The result: nearly 90% of celebrity food and drink posts were unhealthy enough to be essentially illegal under current UK youth advertising regulations, the researchers pointed out. Less than 5% of all food/beverage-related posts are linked to paid sponsorship by a food or beverage manufacturer.

The researchers also observed that celebrity posts that featured relatively healthy food choices were significantly less likely to receive likes or comments from followers.

“So to the extent that celebrities want to promote follower engagement, less healthy foods have generated greater follower engagement, which is more of an incentive for celebrities to post less healthy foods,” Turnwald noted.

The results were published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open.

The findings come as no surprise to Dr. Ellen Selkie, author of an accompanying editorial and assistant professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“It reflects a culture that elevates foods high in sugars and fats by making them visually appealing,” Selkie noted. “Since Instagram is a visual platform, it only makes sense for celebrities to post visually appealing food photos.”

Still, “real” articles about celebrity food might be less real than they appear, she said, given that “in reality, most celebrities probably eat more healthy foods — [including] fruits and vegetables – which they talk about.”

There is a possible solution, Selkie said. This would be tantamount to encouraging social media platforms to adopt algorithms that favor posts about more nutritious foods by giving them greater visibility than posts about poor nutrition.

“It might encourage celebrities to post more of this type of content,” she explained.

But another food and nutrition expert had a simpler recommendation.

“Don’t get nutrition advice from celebrities or athletes,” advised Lona Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Sandon, who was not part of the study, noted that what people see in the media influences their decisions and beliefs about certain foods or diets.

“Celebrities and athletes can be very powerful role models, especially for young teens,” she said.

Pointing to the popular “Got Milk?” campaign, Sandon said it featured a powerful media message aimed at getting children and teens to drink more milk.

“It would be nice to see more stuff like that. A ‘Got Fruit’ campaign maybe,” she said.

And while it would help to see more celebrities posting about healthier ways to eat, that’s not their expertise or their job, Sandon acknowledged.

Her suggestion: “If you want sound nutrition advice, follow one of the many Registered Dietitian Nutritionists — the nutrition experts — on social media instead.”

More information

There’s more on healthy living at the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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