We all are aware of the obesity crisis facing our nation. It is one of our largest public health concerns, and without significant changes, The New England Journal of Medicine reports children of this generation may have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Due to personal interest, I like to read health blogs or follow groups on Twitter who post about various trends going on in the nutrition world. I do not have a science background, but I try to read information from Registered Dieticians so I can be as informed as possible. As our nation continues to combat obesity issues, it is key to identify where exactly we went wrong (I think we can all reasonably conclude it’s a host of issues, pizza burgers notwithstanding) and what we all can do moving forward to prevent our mortality rates from increasing.
Is the volume of nutritional information in the blogosphere assisting us with obesity treatment and prevention, or does social media facilitate excess screen time? When considering a blog post, I decided to examine if social media is helping or hurting us from a health standpoint.
Social media has certainly revolutionized the nutrition world by making more resources readily available online. Looking at the hashtags like #fitness, #fitblog and #healthyliving reveals a variety of users and organizations that post in the name of wellness. From a marketing and product distribution standpoint, social media provides a platform for a large variety of small food companies to generate brand awareness. Many established companies will also generate buzz about new products by sending samples to bloggers for their reviews. In fact, being in touch with social media outlets by distributing products to well-followed writers can significantly impact sales for a very small investment. For instance, Chobani used this strategy to contribute to their success, and today they are the largest distributor of Greek yogurt in the U.S. Readers may be willing to try healthy foods they previously had not heard of or were afraid to try, and small steps toward reducing consumption of processed food is a benefit to public health.
Personally, I value health blogs particularly because many of the writers showcase really interesting and unique recipes that the average student who is 1. Underemployed (ahem, poor) and 2. has the most hectic schedule ever, may not know about.
One particularly momentous recipe I discovered was Carrot ‘n’ Cake’s Overnight Oats in a Jar. Given that I was such a picky eater as a child and Teddie Peanut Butter is probably the sole attributable reason I survived to adulthood, this recipe made me feel connected to Tina’s love for Teddie and I have a new breakfast that I love and eat pretty much daily during the warmer months.
People from all walks of life and all levels of knowledge about health, fitness and nutrition can access both experts and real life people who have incredible stories through social media. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has over 100,000 followers. Additionally, some other obesity-prevention organizations host Twitter chats to provide parents and families with helpful tips. The hopeful result of this is the message of practices to reduce childhood obesity, or resources needed for people to start on the path of healthy living, are readily available through social media.
The question is though, are people willing to seek out these resources and do they want to?
I came across one interesting study reported by the Huffington Post that tracked obesity rates and trends on Facebook. According to the Boston Children’s Hospital researchers, trends on Facebook and obesity rates are tightly correlated. They found “the more people in a certain area or region who “like” or share information on healthy activities on Facebook, the lower the likelihood of that area having a high obesity rate. Similarly, the more people in a certain area or region who “like” or share information about TV on Facebook, the higher the likelihood of that area having a higher obesity rate.” This trend interestingly fits into our class discussion about Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, especially since it suggests people who discuss TV on Facebook are more likely to be more sedentary, which subsequently leads to higher rates of obesity. While Shirky argued that social media was replacing TV consumption and at least we were being productive somehow, there are people who spend significant amounts of time both watching TV and engaging in social media. Combining the two activities can be highly detrimental to our efforts to get people moving more.
The other issue is with the prolific amount of health information written by people who have no scientific background. Newcomers to the health and fitness world may find the conflicting information so confusing and exhausting that they just avoid it all together. There is the Mediterranean Diet, the Paleo Diet, the Zone Diet, low-carb, Weight Watchers and veganism to name a few…all of these diets (or “lifestyles” they like to be called) have lots of support from the blogging community. For instance, many of these diets advocate for consuming large amounts of protein, while The China Study found that large amounts of animal protein causes cancer. How is an average reader supposed to sift through this information or know what is accurate?
I think the benefit of Twitter in this case is that it provides small, easy to comprehend tips so parents and people with busy lives can make manageable changes that can make a huge difference in their well being. To cope with the conflicting information, I think the best strategy is to pick a trend, research it, and try it out to see what happens. It’s a great strategy to learn what does and does not work for you.
I am curious to know what you think – is social media helping or hurting our efforts to lead healthier lives? Do you follow any particular trends online that have helped you achieve wellness goals?