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How to Keep Food Porn from Wrecking Your Diet

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We've all been there: You're innocently scrolling through your social media feed when all of a sudden you're bombarded with an image of gooey double-chocolate Oreo cheesecake brownies (or some similar dessert turducken), a video of an egg yolk in beautiful brunch spread, or the assembly of some stunning fish tacos. Before you know it, you're ordering delivery pizza or making a beeline for the nearest bakery.

It's true that occasional indulgences can totally help you stick to an overall healthy diet by keeping you from feeling deprived. The problem is that when those disruptions become a regular occurrence, it can make it harder for you to achieve your health and fitness goals and maintain that success. Aside from the physical impact on your diet in the form of extra calories (often from excess sugar, white carbs, or unhealthy fat), it can crush your confidence in your ability to choose healthfully and kill your trust in yourself to know what you need.

Eliza Whetzel, R.D., at Middleberg Nutrition in NYC, hears about this frequently. "Many of my clients struggle with the food porn on Instagram, Facebook, and even on cooking shows." For many people, she says, the worst time of day tends to be after dinner, when people are sitting on their couch in front of the TV or on their tablet, computer, or phone. But it can occur any time of day.

Why does this happen?

We've been obsessed with images of glorified, over-the-top food for hundreds of years. Researchers who analyzed paintings of food and family meals from as early as A.D. 1500 speculate that many of these works of art were intended to be aspirational rather than reflective of people's everyday diets. Most families didn't have shellfish or massive spreads of exotic fruit on their tables all the time, but those pictures were certainly pretty to look at!

So what about those food porn pics and videos on your Instagram feed? Researchers have looked at the ways certain foods (especially pleasurable, high-calorie foods and food products specially designed to hit the sugar-fat-salt "bliss" spot) light up various pathways in the brain associated with reward and feelings of pleasure. Eating sugar, for example, has been linked to an increase of feel-good brain chemical dopamine, and it's been suggested that simply seeing images of sugary food is enough to trigger the brain to want some—stat.

Though it's hardly news that eating these foods triggers major activity in the brain, multiple studies have also found links between simply viewing beautiful images of food and significant changes in brain activity—aka visual hunger. Biologically speaking, we're wired to forage for food, but in modern times, that may amount to scrolling through a menu or watching a video that shows you how to make The Best Pizza Ever instead of burning calories chasing down your dinner. Another problem? A lot of these images glamorize food and create a fantasy around it without addressing context or potential downsides to excess consumption. So what can you do about it? If quitting Facebook sounds too extreme, here are four ways to keep food porn from wrecking your diet—or your relationship with food.

1. Recognize that it's not real life.

In the same way that most people in the 1600s didn't eat lobster on the regular, most people today aren't gorging on giant stacks of pancakes every day for breakfast while you're poking a plastic spoon into some yogurt at your desk. Katie Proctor, M.B.A., R.D.N., a healthy lifestyle and business coach at Elevate with Katie, says, "I think the biggest thing is to not always accept what you see at face value or assume that someone's social media profile is an actual (or realistic) food diary."

While social media lends an immediacy that can make you feel like you're getting an inside look at someone's real life, you're actually looking at a carefully curated image, often expertly lit to accentuate the positive. Because people tend to gloss over the context of a particular food in their overall day, explains Proctor, it can make it hard to tell whether that's a once-in-a-while treat or an everyday item. "People no longer have reliable standards against which to assess their food. The average consumer, when faced with food porn, has a hard time discerning."

Recently, social media influencers in the fitness and health world have been lifting the veil in their own ways. In November 2016, for example, fitness blogger Kelsey Wells shared a picture on Instagram to show her followers that even she gets bloated after indulging in treats sometimes too. She added, "Instagram is often a highlight reel of sorts, and there is nothing wrong with focusing on the positive! But it's so important to keep it real and remember that most the images you see while scrolling (including mine) are people's 'best foot forward.'"

Do we know if the person posting the photo even ate that dish? As a backlash against the mixed messages sent by celebrities and influencers posting outrageous dishes, Rebecca Rabel created an Instagram account called i_actually_ate_that where she posts indulgent meals that she—gasp—actually eats. However, she's been upfront in interviews about the fact that it's not what she eats all day every day—she takes a balanced approach that leaves room for occasional indulgences in the context of an overall healthy diet.

2. Deconstruct your response.

Play detective with yourself. Why are you responding to a certain image so strongly? Are you physically hungry? Emotionally hungry? Are you drawn to that food because of a particular flavor or texture? If you're salivating over a picture of an ice cream cone with sprinkles, maybe adding a teaspoon of cacao nibs and a sprinkle of walnuts to that yogurt will provide a pleasing crunch along with some nutrients that actually do your body favors.

Maybe you're yearning for an experience. That fondue video you saw on Facebook may have triggered a craving for cheese...but if you dig a little deeper, perhaps you'll see that what you really want is to be on a ski vacation with friends enjoying drinks and snacks in front of a cozy fire. In that case, pick up the phone and text a pal to say hi or shoot an email to your squad to organize your next get-together.

If a craving just won't quit, you can also put a healthy twist on what you want. Nutrition counseling and communications specialist Kelli Shallal of Hungry Hobby practices what she preaches. She says, "My advice would be to find a healthy recipe remake of whatever is calling your name! That's what I do!"

3. Unplug!

While you don't need to avoid social media altogether (like that would ever happen), it's probably a good idea to stay off when you're super hungry, assuming you follow a lot of foodies. And if you're trying to avoid snacking after dinner, Whetzel recommends brewing a warm cup of herbal tea like ginger or chamomile or adding lemon to a cup of water. "Shut down the kitchen (clean up, turn out all the lights, and mentally make it off limits), and choose only TV shows that don't involve cooking," she adds.

4. Reconnect with your motivation.

Dietitian Charlene Pors of Euphoria Nutrition, says, "Living in a technical age, it's hard to avoid, but one of the biggest strategies to kick the food porn craving is to change your mentality. Think to yourself, do you really need that food? Is it really going to benefit you? Are you actually hungry? Or is that really your appetite talking? Often I tell clients to think to themselves [about] whether that specific food actually aligns with their health and nutrition goals." If it doesn't, says Pors, "it's best to change the channel or keep scrolling through Facebook."

Get back to the basics of food as fuel. What foods energize you? Prioritize those. What foods make you feel like crap? Put them on the "in moderation" or the "no, thanks" list. Keeping a food journal and knowing you need to write down what you eat may help you stay accountable to yourself.

Think about how much progress you've made. Write down a few positive changes that you're proud of. This helps boost your self-esteem and primes you to continue to make choices you feel great about. When all else fails, if you're struggling, remind yourself how awesome it feels to make a choice that supports your goals.

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