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Behavioral Science Underlying #Food Tweets

If #coffee, #beer and #pizza were the most-often tweeted food hashtags in the continental U.S. from February 2015 to March 2016, what does that say about our nation’s collective health?

It’s a question to which University of Utah researchers wanted to tease out answers. The scientists dove into nearly 80 million Twitter messages—a random sample of 1% of publicly available, geotagged tweets—sent over the course of 1 year. Then they sorted through the 4 million food tweets to find those on opposite ends of the health spectrum: tweets mentioning fast-food restaurants, and those mentioning lean meats, fruits, veggies or nuts.

Next the researchers cross-referenced the two types of tweets with information (e.g., from census data and health surveys) about the neighborhoods they came from. They found, for instance, that tweets from poor neighborhoods and regions with large households were less likely to mention healthy foods. Also, people in areas dense with fast-food restaurants tweeted more often about fast food. Communities that tweeted more often about physical activities, or expressed positive sentiments about healthy foods, had better overall health.

Twitter has already been used to track health by gauging the prevalence of smoking and by finding the source of outbreaks. The difference here is that these types of comparisons could provide clues as to how our surrounding neighborhoods—the environments in which we and our clients live, work and play—affect our health and well-being. “Our data could be telling us that certain neighborhoods have fewer resources to support healthy diets,” stated lead author Quynh Nguyen, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Utah College of Health.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Health and Surveillance.

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