From trying a new workout we spotted on Facebook to jumping on the Instagram celery juice bandwagon, we’ve all probably made health decisions based on our social media feed to some degree.
With the average person now spending over two hours a day on various social media platforms, it’s only natural that the friends and influencers we follow online affect our real-world decisions around our well-being.
But just how much does what we take in through a newsfeed change what we do in real life? And are these effects ultimately beneficial, or do they have unintended negative consequences?
Although research is beginning to unpack these questions, our own experiences also tell the tale.
Here’s a look at some of the surprising ways users say social media has fueled their health — or harmed it — and how to get the most out of your own time online.
The pro: Social media can provide health inspiration
After all, you can hardly scroll through Pinterest without passing by a gorgeous salad or must-try smoothie.
Sometimes, getting images of good-for-you foods in your line of sight provides the oomph you need to opt for veggies at dinner — and feel awesome about it.
“I enjoy finding recipe inspiration from other feeds,” says Instagram user Rachel Fine. “This has helped to expand my knowledge when it comes to food and recipes.”
The posts we see on social media can also boost our motivation toward fitness goals or offer us hope for a healthier future.
“They inspired me to push through my recovery so I too could focus on physical strength,” she says. “They gave me fuel and a goal to work toward, which made the dark times and hard moments in my recovery easier to push through. I saw a reason to succeed. I saw something I could be.”
The con: Social media can foster unrealistic expectations of health
When the images we see online present perfection, we may end up feeling that healthy eating and physical fitness are unattainable, or only for a select few.
“Social media can give the impression that creating ‘perfect meals’ and meal prepping can almost be effortless,” says dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RDN. “When it isn’t, users can experience frustration and feel like they aren’t doing it correctly, which can cause them to give up completely.”
Additionally, following diet culture accounts that constantly glorify thinness or make judgements about types of food is stressful.
“Even as someone four years recovered from an eating disorder, I still feel pressure sometimes from the fitness industry on Instagram,” notes Insta user Paige Pichler. She experienced this recently when a social media post overrode her body’s own cues for rest.
“My body was begging for a break, so I came around to the idea of taking a night off from the gym. I saw a workout post on Instagram and was less grounded in my conviction.”
The pro: Social media can be a safe space to get support and discuss health
Though the impersonal nature of connecting with others from behind a screen receives criticism, the anonymity of social media actually has its advantages.
When a health condition is too painful or embarrassing to talk about in person, an online forum can provide a safe space. Nekonam says that during her days with anorexia, social media became a lifeline.
“I had shut myself away from my friends and family. I was avoiding social situations because I had a lot of anxiety and shame surrounding my disorder. I turned to social media for contact with the outside world.”
Angie Ebba, who lives with chronic illness, says she’s found Facebook groups also offer an environment for like-minded people to share health struggles.
“These groups have given me a place to ask questions about treatment without judgment,” she explains. “It’s nice to follow other chronically ill folks online, as it makes the bad days not feel quite as isolating.”
This type of emotional support could have powerful physical effects, too, since social connection
The con: Social media can become an echo chamber of negativity
While this can work for good, that’s not always the case.
If someone you follow focuses solely on the negative aspects of a health condition, or if a group only bemoans the difficulties of weight loss, it’s possible your own mental and physical health could be affected or influenced for the worse.
The pro: Social media provides access to helpful products and health information
Social media has largely taken the place of resources like cookbooks for recipes, physical videos for at-home workouts, and a dusty old medical encyclopedia for answers to health questions.
And the reach of the internet means we hear about health products and helpful information we’d probably have been ignorant of 30 years ago — and, often, that’s a positive thing.
Instagram user Julia Zajdzinski says she first heard about a life-changing health and wellness book on social media after a friend shared the info. “I immediately went out and bought it and started doing exactly what the book suggested,” she says.
As a result, she’s achieved a healthier weight and improved thyroid function.
The con: Social media can promote false “experts” and advertise unhealthy products
Taking health advice from influencers whose only qualification is a massive following may come with unfortunate consequences.
“I went through a really dark period where I was following so many fitness/healthy influencers and was fully convinced that they knew everything about how to live a ‘healthy’ life,” says Brigitte Legallet. “It resulted in a pretty dark time full of over-exercise and food restriction.”
And just like a newsfeed of fruits and veggies can inspire nutritious choices, a barrage of junk food how-to videos might normalize an unhealthy eating pattern.
Not surprisingly, a 2018 study found that when kids watched YouTube influencers eating unhealthy snacks, they subsequently consumed an average of over 300 extra calories.
The opposite can be true, too.
For folks with a history of disordered eating or an eating disorder, seeing calorie counts, food swaps, and food judgment-based posts can be triggering. They may feel guilt or shame around their current habits or fall back into a pattern of disordered eating.
When it comes to our health choices, we all want to be in control — and, fortunately, social media is one place where we truly have this option.
To curate a feed that helps — not harms — your wellness, try setting boundaries around how much time you spend on social media in the first place. One study found that the more people used Facebook, the less they reported both mental and physical well-being.
Then, take stock of the influencers and friends you follow and the groups you’re a member of. Do you find them inspiring you toward better living, or weighing you down? Delete or unfollow as needed.
And if you feel the standards of perfection putting you at risk of unhealthy patterns, pay attention.
“Following dietitians who take an anti-diet, health-at-every-size approach to food is an awesome start,” social scientist and eating disorder specialist Melissa Fabello, PhD advises. “Following accounts that help to explain and inspire intuitive and mindful eating are also helpful.”
Palinski-Wade also encourages a reality check: “Use social media for inspiration and creative ideas, but be realistic with it. Most of us don’t eat dishes that look like they belong on our Instagram and Pinterest feeds. Even influencers don’t eat like that every day. Remember, social media is a job for them and they spend hours each day creating content to share.”
Finally, if you’re seeking health information, remember that the number of followers isn’t necessarily an indicator of expertise.
It’s best to get answers to health questions from a credentialed professional in the real world than an influencer on Instagram.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.