Future Obesity is Predicted by Today’s Trending Food Storiesr
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What you’re reading now secretly tells you whether your country will be skinnier or fatter in three years. After analyzing 50 years of all the food words mentioned in major newspapers like the New York Times and London Times, a new Cornell study shows that the food words trending today in 2015 will predict a country’s obesity level in three years – in 2018.
“The more sweet snacks are mentioned and the fewer fruits and vegetables that are mentioned in your newspaper, the fatter your country’s population is going to be in 3 years, according to trends we found from the past fifty years,” said lead author, Brennan Davis, Associate Professor of Marketing from California State University at San Luis Obispo. “But the less often they’re mentioned and the more vegetables are mentioned, the skinnier the public will be.”
This study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, analyzed all of the different foods mentioned in stories in the New York Times (and London Times) and statistically correlated them with each country's annual Body Mass Index, or BMI, a measure of obesity. While the number of mentions of sweet snacks were related to higher obesity levels 3 years later, the number of salty snack mentions were unrelated. The number of vegetable and fruit mentions were related to lower levels of obesity three years later.
“Newspapers are basically crystal balls for obesity,” said coauthor, Brian Wansink, Professor and Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of the book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. “This is consistent with earlier research showing that positive messages— ‘Eat more vegetables and you’ll lose weight,’—resonate better with the general public than negative messages, such as ‘eat fewer cookies.’”
Predicting a country’s obesity levels in three years might be easily done today using a newspaper. These findings provide public health officials and epidemiologists with new tools to quickly assess the effectiveness of current obesity interventions. If we wish to estimate obesity rates in three years, the best indicator will be what is mentioned in the paper today.
The study was self-funded by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.
The prevalence of obesity in the United States and the United Kingdom has risen tremendously in the past decades. Media provides time-stamped snapshots of trends that may parallel real-life trends. We hypothesized that media mentions of health risks related to obesity increased as obesity rates raised. Thus, we conducted a study to determine if newspaper coverage may be a valuable public record of cultural trends that predate the obesity rise.
This research had three purposes; first, to examine whether media mentions of common foods – sweet snacks, salty snacks, fruits, or vegetables – are associated with national obesity prevalence. Second, we tested whether these media mentions predate or follow obesity prevalence. Finally, we identified patterns of media mentions of obesity comorbidities.
We coded fifty years of non-advertising articles in the New York Times and seventeen years of non-advertising articles in the London Times for the reference of less healthy and healthy food items by year. Food mention trends were then associated with the annual obesity prevalence. Then, time-series generalized linear models were used to assess whether food-related mentions predated or followed obesity prevalence.
Results indicated a positive association between obesity prevalence and New York Times mentions of sweet snacks and a negative association between obesity prevalence and New York Times mentions of fruits. Similar results were found for the United Kingdom trends and The London Times. Notably, media mentions of these foods were found to follow obesity prevalence for the US and the UK more than precede the trends. These results are important because they suggest that it may be possible to estimate a nation’s future obesity prevalence by looking at current media mentions of foods.
• Download paper from the SSRN (the Social Science Research Network)
Davis, Brennan and Brian Wansink (2015). Fifty Years of Fat: News Coverage of Trends that Predate Obesity Prevalence. BMC Public Health, 15, 629. doi:10.1186/s12889-015-1981-1
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