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Healthy foods can be staged to look more appealing

A team of scientists led by the University of Georgia (UGA) has recently investigated how different types of food are portrayed on social media and how social media users respond to such images, and found that, while unhealthy options such as sugary treats or fully loaded burgers have a quick appeal, healthy food options often need visually aesthetic images to make them more appealing.

“We believe this topic can be helpful for health communication and health practitioners,” said study lead author Yilang Peng, an assistant professor of Financial Planning, Housing, and Consumer Economics at UGA. “If you have someone trying to promote a healthy diet, it’s crucial for them to pay attention to the visual aesthetics. This study shows that styles play an important role and shape our engagement with different social media accounts.”

To better understand how social media users interact with food photos, the researchers analyzed over 50,000 images from food-centric Instagram accounts with the help of computational visual analysis that took into account color composition, image complexity, recurrent patterns, and approximate calorie content, while comparing how such elements were related to likes and comments.

The analysis revealed that, while high-calorie foods saw higher engagement regardless of their particular features, lower-calories options such as vegetables or well-balanced meals needed more photographic staging to get the public’s attention.

“There are some neurological studies that show as people visually process high-calorie meals, they process them faster than low-calories images,” said lead author Muna Sharma, who earned a doctorate in Consumer Economics from UGA in 2022. “So, when they are looking at a low-calorie image, they give more attention to all of these visual features. That means that if you want to draw people’s attention to these lower-calorie foods, you have to take care to highlight specific factors,” such as warm rather than cool tones, repetitions, or placing the food on a clean background.

“A good example of this is a salad. Instead of just the salad, you could arrange slices of strawberry on top, in a repeating pattern. That will make it more attractive and can increase audience engagement on the image.”

These findings could help people create healthy content which garners higher social media engagement, and may thus potentially contribute to public health. “On one hand, people might not automatically engage with healthier foods, but people do like to show off healthy meals. It comes back to their identity, and those posts can make them look better on social media. My recommendation is that even with a very simple integration of these tips, you can boost engagement,” Peng concluded.

The study is published in the journal Health Communication.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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