Passive scrolling affects more than just our minds. Two health experts explain the link between social media and weight gain and give their easy formula for finding your healthy, realistic weight away from the Insta pressure

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Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll specialises in health and the relationship between stress weight and fatigue, while health journalist Louise Atkinson has been writing about every diet under the sun for over 30 years. Both are clued up on the mental and physical implications of diets and weight loss, and teamed up to write The Shrinkology Solution  to provide a science-based guide to identify emotional issues behind eating patterns and behaviour around food, with practical techniques to help you to achieve a healthy weight and mindset long-term. Here they explain how social media can affect your self-perception and ultimately lead to weight issues, and how to break the cycle.

“We are constantly bombarded by ‘ideal’ images in newspapers, magazines, on TV and especially online. Logically we know many of these images are teased and stretched, doctored and Photoshopped. Public image is all about lighting, angles and selection. But our subconscious mind remains gullible, and it can be a struggle not to compare those images to what we see in the mirror every day and end up feeling dissatisfied.

“So many girls grow up into women who can’t shake off the ideal image of ‘thin as beautiful’. It’s clearly not healthy. Psychologists know that internalising a thin ideal leads to us becoming unhappy with ourselves and this can in turn generate unhelpful views towards food and eating, in particular dieting. For decades, newspapers and magazines were blamed for publishing pictures of rake-thin models perpetuating an impossibly skinny ideal. But you can multiply that exposure exponentially if you’re a keen social media addict, spending hours each day flicking through perfection on your phone.

“You might think you’re just being nosy and voyeuristic as you scroll through a Kardashian Insta feed, or rush to catch up with Victoria Beckham, but this constant stream of unattainable (and very often airbrushed) beauty is definitely not good for your mental health. Social media makes it so hard to be happy with your body and your weight, and so hard to achieve a happy, healthy weight.

“There’s also the culture of Photoshopped perfection that massively amplifies body dissatisfaction, in turn feeding the diet business. ‘Clean eating’  bloggers rarely mention weight loss, but their ethos can sometimes hide a desire for thinness and sculpted, self- conscious beauty, all to be achieved seemingly without effort. This aspirational slenderness is hard to achieve and not really very different from the rejected old-fashioned diets of restriction.

Social media food fads, which make food a fashion item, create yet another pressure on us.

“It’s not only women who feel and bend to this pressure. Men are of course also influenced by advertising – if they weren’t then there wouldn’t be such astronomical budgets for ad slots in sporting events. For men, however, an image of thinness is combined with muscle definition to create that difficult-to-achieve, six-pack ideal. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have identified a condition called ‘muscle belittlement’ whereby men think that they’re less muscular than they really are. This distorted belief is thought to lie behind unhealthy eating patterns,  the use of performance-enhancing substances  (muscle-building supplements and even steroids), low self-esteem and, in extreme cases, depression.

“Today, social media invades almost every aspect of our lives. It’s no longer a young person’s pastime – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest are compelling and compulsive essential accessories to almost every career and hobby. Yes, social media can bring joy and friendship. But it can also be very destructive and frighteningly addictive. Studies now show that the more time you spend sharing, liking, tweeting and hashtagging, the greater your risk of unhappiness is likely to be.

“Too much exposure to social media, whether its old-fashioned celebrities or the new breed of foodie influencer, can distract from the real reasons to eat and what to eat. You might think you’re in complete control, but the association between the beautiful, seemingly happy and perfect individuals on social media platforms with the food they are presenting can be utterly compelling. It can lead us to believe that if only we cooked and ate exactly what these Insta-celebs do, we too could be happy and life would be a breeze.

“Social media food fads, which make food a fashion item, create yet another pressure on us. This elevates food way beyond its original status as a source of sustenance, and creates desire wrapped up in an ever-changing fashion buzz we struggle to keep up with. This can leave us feeling like we’re never quite good enough, and this can progress to body dissatisfaction. In some cases body dysmorphia  can result, if someone becomes so obsessive about areas of their body that they spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about perceived imperfections that no one else can even see.

Instagram feeds don’t show the millions of little slip-ups, backtracking and diversions that make up real life for everyone

“That sense of competition with others to get the most friends, followers or likes, coupled with the temptation to derive self worth from how many comments and shares your posts receive, could be breeding a dependence on external sources of validation that leaves us feeling bad about ourselves- think about that sinking feeling when no one acknowledges a post that you were hoping to get a huge response from. Social media can be isolating and, ironically, can make you feel disconnected and alone. These feelings can often result in social anxiety.  Stress increases cortisol levels, which can result in weight loss for some. Ultimately, constantly comparing ourselves to airbrushed images leads to body dissatisfaction, which in turn is linked to overeating and/or cycles of eating and dieting.

“And it isn’t just about people. Glossy pictures of appetising food or cooking have long been used by the advertising industry to tempt us to eat more, and such is the social media seduction that ‘food porn’ now even has its own searchable hashtag. If you choose to fill your social media feed with these delicious images, you might notice a change in your waistline- regularly viewing mouthwatering food photos on social media may trigger feelings of hunger and encourage overindulgence.

“Studies show that looking at pictures of food is enough to raise a person’s levels of ghrelin, a hormone involved in the stimulation of hunger, as the appetising image sends a rush of blood to the part of the brain responsible for taste, encouraging you to eat, even when you’re not hungry. Researchers call this ‘visual hunger’  and it applies to cookery shows and flicking through recipe books. It certainly helps to explain why it’s so hard to watch Bake Off without reaching for a biscuit or a slice of cake.”

How to resist the social media scroll hole

“One important tenet of our method is to throw a lasso around your social media use and ask yourself whether everything on your social media feed is truly helpful. Be realistic and work out ways to trim some of the fat- instead of following people or accounts that make you feel low or deprived, refresh your feed with inspirational sources that motivate you to exercise and offer deliciously healthy recipe ideas instead. Find and follow the sort of influencers more likely to make you feel strong and empowered, and choose to surround yourself with positive eating messages for the times when you are checking your phone.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot to be said for taking regular social media breaks- you could even switch off completely for a while. Whether you take a social media hiatus  or not, just remember that while it can seem like successful people just float effortlessly through life, never facing adversity or, if they do, responding like super-humans pushing through like some action-movie lead, Instagram feeds don’t show the millions of little slip-ups, backtracking and diversions that make up real life for everyone. Social media is without a doubt the worst perpetuator of this, as we tend to only post the best bits of our lives in a polished and preened portrayal of human existence. It’s not like that. Not at all.

“Once you are fully conscious of these influences on your eating behaviour, you’ll be in the best place to start making profound, lasting shifts in your life that can free you from the shackles of body dissatisfaction and perpetual yo-yo dieting. As such, if you do have weight to lose, here’s a guide to finding your own unique healthy weight, rather than comparing yourself to a social media yardstick and falling eternally short...

How to find your realistic, healthy weight

How much did you weigh when you were 18 years old (without dieting?) in lbs or kg (e.g. 70 kg, 11 stone, 154lb)

How much did you weigh at your heaviest (not including pregnancy weight) (e.g. 77kg, 12 stone, or 168lb)

How much did you weigh at your lightest after the age of 18, with or without having dieted? (e.g.64kg, 10 stone, or 140lb)

What is your current weight? (e.g.77kg, 12 stone, or 168lb)

Add together your answers to questions 1 and 2 (154 + 168 = 322) and divide by 2 (161). The result is A.

Add together your answers to questions 3 and 4 (140 + 168 = 308) and divide by 2 (154). The result is B.

Now add A and B (161 + 154 = 315) and divide by 2 (157 or 11 stone 2lb).

This final number is a good achievable target weight.”

The Shrinkology Solution, £9.99 (Quadrille),  buy online

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