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How the ‘Instagram diet’ works

At 37 years old, Lisa Pessah-Bloom, a mother of three, was pre-diabetic, struggling with losing postpartum pounds and concerned about her health.

“I had gestational diabetes for all three of my pregnancies. After my third, my A1C (blood sugar measurement) kept rising, and the doctor told me for the first time to be careful, because I was on track for diabetes.”

Pessah-Bloom knew that she had to shed her pregnancy pounds and get her blood sugar under control. She did a Google search on diets for diabetes and stumbled upon the Paleo diet, which includes protein-rich foods like meat, fish, eggs and nuts, as well as vegetables and fruit, but excludes grains, dairy, legumes, sugars and salt. “People said that their diabetes was reversed,” she said.

She started eating more vegetables and unprocessed foods. But while following Paleo helped Pessah-Bloom eat a clean, lean diet, it wasn’t enough to get her to her goal. She needed something else — a support system of sorts — and so she opened an account on Instagram under the handle @paleoworkingmama.

“I started my Paleo page for motivation, really for myself,” Pessah-Bloom said. But it wasn’t long before she found people with health issues like herself who were also using the photo-driven app. “I started following others who reversed Crohn’s and IBS too, which I also had,” she said.

“The more I followed people, the more I felt empowered. And then something unexpected happened. After some time, people who followed me told me that I — me! — empowered them. It was a chain of support,” she said. “I got it from others, and I gave it to others. People asked me to come to their house to perform refrigerator cleansing! They are inspired by the pictures I post of the food I make and what I keep in my kitchen, like my spices.”

Insta-community

The community support that Instagram provides may be its most valuable asset for those hoping to achieve their health goals.

“The first picture I posted was a mason jar of water with lemons,” Pessah-Bloom said. “I had just learned about my high blood sugar, and I wrote, ‘Making lemonade out of lemons.’ ” The post marked the start of Pessah-Bloom’s new diet and exercise journey, and in her post, she encouraged others to follow and support her.

“One person posted my post on her page — she had over 15,000 followers, and she said, ‘Let’s give @thepalemoworkingmama our support’ — and then all of a sudden I had 100 followers. This was someone I didn’t even know … someone who has plenty of her own followers, but she really wanted me to succeed on my journey.”

There’s also the benefit of being part of a more intimate community. “With Instagram, you can have a separate part of your profile dedicated to food journaling, and you don’t have to be worried that your family member or neighbor who just wants to see pictures of your dogs or vacations will be turned off,” said Christina Chung, a doctoral student at the University of Washington and lead author of a study that analyzed women who consistently use Instagram to record and share what they eat, in order to learn about the benefits and challenges of using the platform to achieve one’s health goals.

“Instagram is just pictures. There are no posts about politics. It’s easy to navigate, with no chaos or clutter,” Pessah-Bloom added. “If you follow someone, you’re following them for a specific reason … and often someone with a similar goal.”

Pessah-Bloom also appreciates the convenience that Instagram provides. “People are so busy, and sometimes you can’t go in person to a Weight Watchers meeting. With Instagram, it’s in your face. You’re seeing it all the time. When I eat something bad … and I see someone preparing something wonderful, I say, ‘Why did I do that?!’ It keeps you inspired!”

Food pictures that create cravings for tasty, healthy food help, too. “When you see something so mouthwatering and appetizing, you’re more likely to try it, and then you get hooked on eating well,” Pessah-Bloom said.

Benefits of photo journaling

For those who use Instagram to track what they eat, the ease of snapping a picture is particularly helpful during a jam-packed day.

“The benefit of photos is that it’s more fun to do than taking out a booklet or typing hundreds of words of description in an app,” Chung said. “Plus, it’s more socially appropriate for people who are trying to track their diets to snap a photo of their plate when they’re out with friends: Everyone’s doing it, and it doesn’t look weird.”

As one of the study participants noted, “if I was out with friends or something, then a quick snapshot of the food would be easier than saying, ‘Hold on, guys, I need to pull up MyFitnessPal and put everything down and the right serving size.’ ”

No fat grams on Instagram

But just how accurate is Instagram as a tracker for weight loss? Can you really know the portion sizes, fat grams and calorie counts of what you ate — or should eat — when you swipe through photos?

“When it comes to losing weight, food pics may or may not help,” said Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The food could be great quality, but even an excessive amount of ‘good’ food will cause weight gain.”

If, for example, someone spots a picture of healthy chicken parmigiana as food inspiration for weight loss, it may be difficult to figure out the correct portion size, unless it is listed.

“It’s not very accurate if you are looking for tracking information such as detailed nutrients, portion size and calories, since it might be difficult to assess this information from photos,” Chung said.

If you’re looking for a 200-calorie meal, you might search using the hashtag #200calories and find some options. But in Chung’s study, participants used the platform in conjunction with other apps if they were seeking more detailed nutrition data.

Calories aside, for those who use Instagram, the visual cues that the app provides — actual pictures of food — may be just enough motivation to continue eating on plan, or in some cases to eat less.

“Before (when using MyFitnessPal), I would have a small snack pack that was a bag of chips and be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t really count because it’s just a little tiny bag.’ But I think with Instagram, it helped me because I was taking a picture of it: It’s real, and it exists, and it does count towards what I was eating. And then putting a visual image of it up really helped me stay honest,” one study participant said.

Tensions between tracking honestly and posting something perceived as more desirable were also observed in the study. That could present a dilemma, leading some to spend time on making photos look better, explained Chung. But the thought of posting something “off-plan” may also help people stay on track, she added.

Insta diet success

Over a year later, Pessah-Bloom’s cooking skills have improved, and she is no longer pre-diabetic. Her IBS is resolved, and she weighs less than she did at her wedding about 12 years ago. Her husband, a huge Instagram fan, has lost 40 pounds with the help of the app and his wife’s cooking, and her kids eat healthier now, too.

Pessah-Bloom says she could not have done it without her online community that evolved from her photo journal.

“I love the people I follow on Instagram. … They have become my online ‘support’ group. Everyone inspires each other. I work full-time and have three kids. I couldn’t have done any of this without Instagram.”