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Go Ahead and Gawk: How Food Porn Can Make Us Healthier

My, that tofu looks tasty. "Food porn" usually conjures up images of cake and cookies, but is it possible that pictures of nutritious stuff can actually make us healthier?
Go Ahead and Gawk: How Food Porn Can Make Us Healthier
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Photo: Damaris / KitchenCorners.com 

 

 

Every Thursday, Greatist staff writer Sophie Breene scours the Web for the cheesiest, chocolatiest, avocado-iest, most melt-in-your-mouth food photos she can find. The winners make it to The Greatist Table, a weekly roundup of themed images and recipes, everything from soup recipes to holiday drink ideas. “It’s like my personal food porn,” she told me one Thursday afternoon.

Though Breene has a valid excuse — it’s part of her job, after all — she’s far from alone in letting her eyes feast once in a while. More than half of us admit to taking food photos on our cell phones at least once a month (and presumably at least that many people view them). But the photos she selects differ from many of the images of food out there in that nothing is triple-fried, double-chocolate, or made entirely out of butter. (Yes, that exists.) This stuff is healthy.

Over the past few years, food porn has made it big, with sites like Tastespotting and FoodGawker racking up millions of views every month. Scroll through your Facebook newsfeed this minute and see if you can’t find at least one photo of someone’s not-yet-eaten dinner. With an iPhone in hand and Instagram just a few taps away, it seems everyone is either an amateur chef, photographer, or both, and wants to let the whole world know.

Across the U.S., scientists and journalists have documented the food porn epidemic, predicting all sorts of negative health consequences including food cravings and overeating [1]. But over the past few months I’ve started to wonder: What about photos of healthy food? Surely they can’t be as hazardous to our health as their butter- and sugar-filled peers. Shouldn’t taking and looking at pictures of the healthy stuff have a positive impact on our health habits? And couldn’t health experts use the power of photography to start improving people’s eating habits? Fork in one hand and mouse in the other, I set out to investigate.

Beauty in the Brussels Sprouts — The Photographic Road to Health

Photo: Tastspotting.com 

 

 

Unsurprisingly, the most popular category of food photos online is desserts (at least according to one report). Head to Pinterest and some blogger’s freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies will likely float to the top of the page. (Couldn’t she offer to share?) But, perhaps more surprising, the second most commonly photographed type of food is vegetables, making up 18 percent of the food porn scene. Some of the most well-loved labels on Foodgawker, according to co-founder Chuck Lai, are “vegetarian,” “vegan,” and “healthy.”

Though it’s hard to say exactly why asparagus attracts more paparazzi than Lady Gaga, a few possible reasons stand out. For one thing, vegetables are colorful, and colors are pretty. Orange and pistachio pilaf looks like a Picasso next to mousy-brown oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, even if most people might prefer the taste of the latter.

Photos of such dishes target not just seasoned vegetarians, but also the people who wouldn’t dream of touching, let alone eating, something green. For all the hullabaloo about the obesity epidemic and the life-saving power of kale, what if a picture like this one is all it might take to get someone’s hand out of the bag of Doritos?

I’m not necessarily suggesting doctors start pulling up Pinterest boards to show patients how appealing a cucumber salad can really be. But the blogger community seems to have long ago caught onto the idea that veggies and other healthy eats can be extremely photogenic. It’s hard to find the exact numbers, but just from a few hours of browsing, it seems to me that for every dozen Pinterest boards and Tumblrs devoted to comfort food and baked goods, there’s at least one titled something like “healthy food porn” or “healthy recipes.” And just take my word for it, it’s possible to spend as much time looking at linguine with pea pesto as it is to spend staring at sugary sweets.

These sites also cater to growing niche communities who, unlike their Dorito-downing peers, have already committed to eating healthy, but don’t necessarily know what to do with a big batch of broccoli and quinoa. For these folks too, food porn can be the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy diet.

Pretty as a Peach — Practical Food Porn

But let’s be real here: Desserts still dominate the food porn scene. While certain healthy dishes have the potential to make our stomachs rumble, a photo of a lone Granny Smith lying on a table will (almost) never go viral on Pinterest.

That’s because it’s actually much harder to make healthy food look tasty than it is to make unhealthy food look good, says health psychologist and Greatist Expert Dr. Sherry Pagoto. “Our brain is wired to desire foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt. So it may be more difficult [to make] some lower-calorie foods… as desirable from an imagery perspective.”

I talked to Damaris Santos Palmer, founder of the photo-fab blog Kitchen Corners, about the struggle between posting pictures of healthy versus unhealthy eats. Palmer, whose blog also features pictures of her adorable (healthy) family, admitted she posts mostly photos of desserts and sweets, but not because that’s how her family eats. In fact, Palmer makes mostly Brazilian food, “a lot of rice and beans, salads, and things like that. I asked her why, then, she prefers to photograph things like rainbow cake, and she told me: “Who wants to see a picture of rice and beans? You know, it’s hard to make that beautiful so I end up photographing more sweet than savory.”

Still, when she isn’t playing the role of Annie Liebovitz in a chef’s hat, Palmer’s just a busy mom who doesn’t want to feed her family crap. When it’s dinnertime and she’s out of ideas for quick, healthy, and family-friendly meals, she heads straight to sites such as Tastespotting, bypassing the cake collections for the roundups of nutritious dinner recipes. (I typed “healthy” and “dinner” into the search function and came up with dozens of recipes for each term.)

A photo of a meal can be much more inspiring than just reading a recipe, says Dr. Susan Albers, author of “Eating Mindfully,” a book in which she offers psychological techniques to help people develop healthy eating habits. “The visual element can connect you instantly with other memories and sensations.”

I asked Albers whether she thought just perusing photos of veggies could spur a change in someone’s diet. “Yes!” she answered, remembering a broccoli-hating client who gave the green stuff a second chance after she saw a to-die-for Pinterest photo of a broccoli-brown-rice casserole. (Maybe this one?) “Even looking [at] healthy food can stimulate cravings.”

Moreover, looking at a series of photos can sometimes be infinitely more practical than just paging through a picture-free cookbook. Planning and cooking meals is a “very visual” process, Palmer says. “I don’t have time to … read a whole recipe. I can just go onto Tastespotting and I’ll look at something and say, ‘Oh I have these ingredients. I can make this for dinner.’”

For dietitian and Greatist Expert Lindsey Joe, the reason “healthy” food porn works is because it reminds people they don’t have to rely on restaurant meals and store-bought snacks for good-tasting grub.

“It gives people that extra push of inspiration or confidence to try something new when it comes to cooking or baking food for themselves,” she said. “Getting people more hands-on in the kitchen is an excellent place to start if [you’re] looking to pump up nutrition in your diet.”

To someone who spends every day writing articles that (hopefully) encourage people to make healthier choices, it seems important to realize that a picture might just say a thousand delectable words. Whether it’s a practical way to keep our healthy resolutions or a way to convince ourselves that Brussels sprouts really do taste like candy, ultimately everyone can benefit from a little bit of porn.

I asked Palmer why she likes photographing her food, and she answered immediately. “I wanna’ know what feelings can I evoke with that picture. And the feeling I want to evoke is, ‘It’s delicious.’”

Do you ever look at photos of healthy food online? Do you end up making your own versions of the food you see? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.

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Works Cited +

  1. Food porn. McBride, A.E. Gastronomica 2010;10(1):38-46.

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