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Beware the dangers of food porn

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Food porn makes you hungry — it’s a scientific fact. But can it also be doing you harm?

When you see that savory burger on Instagram, you feel it. Your eyes gaze upon that gastroporn (or “food porn” as we’ve all come to know it), and you begin to salivate, your stomach growls and your compulsive desire to eat something grows stronger. Food porn makes you hungry — it’s a scientific fact. But can it also be doing you harm?

Why food porn is irresistible

Charles Spence is a professor at Oxford University who explores how people perceive the world around them, particularly how our brains process the information coming from our different senses. Your brain, he writes in this commentary for The Guardian, is your body’s most blood-thirsty organ, using around 25 percent of total blood flow. It’s in our DNA to find food, so it’s not surprising that some of the largest increases in cerebral flood flow occur when a hungry brain is exposed to images of desirable food.

The food-porn phenomenon has exploded across social media channels, becoming an almost obsession for foodies and chefs. In 2015, food was the second most searched-for category on the internet, behind actual pornography. At the time of this writing, there were more than 211 million posts on Instagram using the hashtag #food and more than 116 million posts using the hashtag #foodporn.

There are methods to drive even more attraction to food images, according to Spence, who also advises companies on packaging and branding. He notes that showing food—especially protein—in motion (even if it’s just implied motion) will elicit a stronger reaction, because it conveys freshness to the viewer. It also allows the viewer’s mind to imagine the act of eating the food they are seeing.

The dangers of food porn

At Delicious Living, we know the power of appetizing imagery. But we’re also keen to its dangers, which is why we feature nutritious, whole-food ingredients instead of butter-rich, outrageously caloric or sugary dishes. In his commentary, Spence alludes to the concerns of food porn, and why we should be wary of its growing popularity:

  1. Food porn increases hunger. Viewing images of desirable foods provokes your appetite. In one study, participants watched a seven-minute restaurant review that was riddled with pancakes, waffles, hamburgers and other diner staples. This led to increased hunger ratings among not only participants who hadn’t eaten for a while but also among those who had just finished a meal.
  2. Food porn promotes unhealthy food. Many of the recipes that top chefs make on television are high in calories and use unhealthful ingredients. This has been proven through systematic analysis of TV chefs’ recipes, which tend to be much higher in fat, saturated fat and sodium. While fewer than half of viewers went on to actually make those recipes at home, the concern is that the foods we see being made, and the food portions we see being served on TV may set norms for what we consider appropriate.
  3. The more food porn you view, the higher your body mass index (BMI). Spence notes that the link is only correlational, not causal, but it’s still noteable that people who watch more food TV have a higher BMI.
  4. Food porn drains mental resources. Whenever we view images of food, our brains can’t help but engage in mental simulation — we imagine ourselves eating that food. We therefore need to expend some mental resources to resist all of these virtual temptations. In other words, we can’t get the thought of eating that food out of our heads after we see it, and in a lot of cases, we’re going to choose the unhealthful food over a more nutritious choice.

Our brains are equipped to find sources of nutrition in food-scarce environments, Spence argues. But, unfortunately, we are surrounded by more images of unhealthy, high-fat foods than ever before — and we strongly desire to keep sharing those images. So, it begs the question, should we be practicing #healthyfoodporn?

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