Scrolling through recipes on Pinterest, you’d think its 450 million users are health nuts who are obsessed with low-cal dishes. But, as with many things on social media, looks are deceiving.
A new study from George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services reveals that there’s a stark difference between the recipes that Pinterest users post and those they actually make. While they publicly “like” and “pin” healthy recipes, the dishes they end up cooking are high in fat, sugar, and calories. The researchers say this poses an interesting problem for people interested in public health. Social media has the power to create social norms around promoting a healthy lifestyle, but many people aren’t making the leap into actually living healthier.
The U.S. government puts billions of dollars annually toward trying to shift Americans’ diets, because studies show it can have a powerful impact on improving people’s overall health. It has invested in a National School Lunch program since 1946 and published dietary guidelines to educate Americans. This has led to some successes: Between 2003 and 2016, Americans decreased their daily intake of sugar by 4.8 teaspoons and increased their whole-grain consumption.
In this new paper, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the researchers point out that social media could be another powerful tool in this effort to shape dietary behavior because, well, we’re all on it. In the United States, 98 million people are active monthly users of Pinterest, which is equivalent to 18% of the adult population. The platform has become a popular recipe sharing site, with more than 60% of users reporting that they’d made a new recipe that was inspired by something they saw on the site. “There’s tremendous opportunities in social media to influence healthy behavior,” Hong Xue, the lead researcher, said in a statement. “We’re only beginning to understand its potential and pitfalls.”