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Are you addicted to food porn? Your online obsession explained.

When Winny Hayes joined TikTok, she thought the social video app was mostly for lip-synching and dance trends. She wasn't yet privy to its world of food content: creamy vodka pasta, mouthwatering birria quesatacos, and anything and everything dropped into an air fryer. 

"I was like, 'This is amazing,'" Hayes recalls. "And now the majority of people that I follow are food content creators: barbecue, pizza, I actually follow someone who only makes bagels. That's amazing. I'm addicted to them."

Food content and the internet go hand-in-hand, and online users can't get enough. We live in the era of "phone eats first" – that is, capturing images of your food before taking a bite, and the hashtag #foodporn has nearly 267 million posts on Instagram. Why are we so addicted to videos of food?

Your food porn obsession explained

Hayes, an Atlanta resident with 1.1 million TikTok followers, is known for making vibrant, creative meals for her family, composed in short how-to videos that help viewers brainstorm their own meal ideas.

"Adopt me, please" comments flood the page, and that's the other side of online food content: Though much of it serves as inspiration for home-cooked meals, there's also an aspirational element. "Food porn," as it's commonly referred to, can also go viral not because we want to know how to make it, but because we just want to eat it. 

"It’s pleasurable. It feels good to look at pictures of food," says Rachel Herz, a Brown University and Boston College faculty member with a Ph.D in neuroscience. She's the author of "Why You Eat What You Eat," which explores the myriad of sensory, psychological and social factors that go into our experiences with food. 

"It makes us instantly – 'happy' is a bit of a loaded word – but it does in a very loose way make us feel happy, because it's literally making a neurological effect to trigger feelings of reward and pleasure," she says.

Simply looking at photos or watching videos of food triggers the same activation of dopamine and other chemicals in our brain as seeing food in person does, Herz says. And it isn't by accident that the phenomenon was dubbed "food porn." Being drawn to delicious-looking food is driven by our biology, specifically a region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens involved with pleasure and reward.

"Food is one of the two greatest pleasures of being alive – the other being sex – and we actually have to eat multiple times a day in order to stay alive," Herz says. 

The bottom line: Our brain tells us that looking at food feels good, so we continue to seek more of the images we know can do the trick. 

Remember these? Whipped coffee, pancake cereal and more viral cooking trends from quarantine

What we can learn from more thoughtful food content

At a certain point, food porn can become "stale," Hayes says. She prefers the dynamic nature of YouTube videos over stills on Instagram, but she doesn't always have the time to watch a 15-minute cooking video. Enter TikTok –  food content that allowed for eye-catching, informative videos that were more easily digestible, but still satisfying.

Over the last few years, viral food porn has done more than trigger a psychological response or just make us really wish we had a cheeseburger or a big bowl of pho right now.

Through the coronavirus quarantine and beyond, it has become a gateway for reluctant home chefs to try cooking, and an invitation to learn about cultures from around the world that one might not otherwise be introduced to, whether they plan on cooking the dish in question or ordering it at a restaurant.

Amid protests against racism this past year, sharing photos and videos of local restaurants also became a way to show support for Black- and Asian-owned businesses. 

Food videos serve a bigger purpose.

"At the end of the day, what brings us together is food," Hayes says. "What the internet has done is open our eyes to different types of food that we don't normally eat, or we don't normally know how to make. These content creators make it so accessible." 

More:TikTokers are sick of seeing ethnic foods get a bad rap: 'We need to redefine healthy'