Greek Yogurt, Fitness and Screen Time – How Social Media Impacts Obesity

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.

ImageIs 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.

ImageFor someone who has limited resources and time, these recipes certainly beat the Depression-era tuna noodle casserole too.

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. Image

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?

7 comments

  1. Hi Kathryn… very interesting article. I have to say however, that I don’t believe social media is helping or hurting our efforts to lead healthier lives, rather enhancing the habits we already partake in. While Pinterest is a great outlet for healthy food options (http://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=healthy%20food) it also is a great outlet for more dessert options than you could ever imagine (http://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=dessert). Therefore, I believe it is in our hands to have social media either help or hurt our health decisions.

    In addition, I have been following Women’s Health Magazine on Twitter for about a year now, and find their posts very encouraging, motivational, and healthy if you are looking to enhance your “healthy” Twitter feed. https://twitter.com/WomensHealthMag

  2. Hi Kathryn — as a daughter of a VERY health concerned mother, I have heard and seen many of these diets (Vegan, Paleo, Raw, etc.) in my home as well as on social media. To me the effect is the same; as you mentioned with so many sources of information saying different things, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and I do.

    I think the trick is to realize that fads are fads, whether they on are social media or not. Fruits and veggies will always be good for you, but no one really knows what the miracle diet is. And if you’re motivated, try the Paleo or raw diet, but realize that while it might be a good fit for some people, it may not be a good fit for you.

    One health trend that I first heard about from my mother which I have recently seen surfacing all over Pinterest and blogs is the Green Smoothie. I think these drinks are a great quick breakfast and source of nutrition. Tip: freeze the bananas then blend & spinach will soak up any flavor.

    Also – Natures Knockout (http://www.naturesknockout.com) is a duo that I think is rockin healthy living and social media. They have truly built an empire with their vlogs on youtube that feature healthy recipes and “clean” makeup alternatives. Over the last couple of years I have seen their presence and following grow.

  3. Hi Kathryn…I think it’s a really interesting question and one that definitely does not have a black and white answer. I agree with Margaret above: it’s in OUR individual hands to decide what we do with social media and the massive amount of information that often contradicts itself. (Like you said, Paleo vs. The China Study…who do you trust?)

    I read an article a while ago about at study that found that looking at pictures of food on a regular basis does indeed lead to weight gain. It’s one of those “duh” studies, but I think it is a powerful one. Spending time in the indulgent section of Pinterest learning how to make deep-fried oreos or pizza burgers isn’t just a fantasy thing, for many people, this leads to cravings for unhealthy food which translates into weight gain.

    But, if you have the internal motivation to get healthy and improve your diet, what a wonderful resource social media can be – from so many different angles. There are awesome bloggers who share healthy recipes, an infinite amount of ideas on sites like Pinterest, online trainers and workout programs, etc. A friend of mine is keeping a blog to track her own weight loss, which seems like a good way (for her) to stay motivated and stick to her goals.

    That being said, I think social media can go too far and has become very dangerous for those who are prone to under-eating and an unhealthy obsession with “fitness”. A lot of bloggers and Pinners provide “fitspo”, or inspiration to get fit. There are also sites dedicated to “thinspo”, which provide inspiration to be thin (read: anorexic). If you search these terms on Pinterest, a message actually pops up warning about the dangers of eating disorders. I also read an article recently that talked about how fitspo is just thinspo in a sports bra. (http://www.thegreatfitnessexperiment.com/2012/02/is-fitspiration-really-any-better-than-thinspiration.html)

    I guess the end message is that social media is an incredibly powerful tool, but it can be either powerfully great or powerfully detrimental – all depending on how individual users approach it.

  4. Such an interesting topic, Kathryn…I’m so glad you mentioned Chobani, especially, because I think they’re the quintessential example of a brand that took full advantage of social media for a health-inspired marketing strategy. (I love following their Pinterest page, if you haven’t seen it already: http://www.pinterest.com/chobani/).

    Sadly though, despite the many companies promoting a healthy diet/lifestyle, there are still others who only worsen the unhealthy habits of the U.S. population. One example is Coke’s recent ad campaign which promotes and defends the consumption of aspartame, the sugar substitute used in Diet Coke which has been medically proven to have detrimental health effects, especially with regards to weight gain. Check out “Why Coca-Cola’s New Ad Campaign May Be Dangerous to Your Health”: http://www.alternet.org/food/why-coca-colas-new-ad-campaign-may-be-dangerous-your-health

    To Kat’s point, I also worry that fitness “inspo” boards on Pinterest, and other blogs in general, are contributing to increasing instances of anorexia, but as others have mentioned, there are plenty of positive examples of health motivation on social media, too…I think the most important thing is educating the population first so they can sift through the bad/good social media themselves.

  5. While I do believe that both healthy and unhealthy lifestyles are vocalized through social media, I think companies with healthful objectives have become a dominating force. Because they believe so passionately about these goals, they have the drive to reach as many as possible and often take advantage of every outlet available.

    It is sad to see these healthy lifestyle tips and inspiration go to the extreme (as noted by Kristie and Kat) with instances of anorexia. However, I think the benefits are outweighing the negatives and people need to choose to follow credible sources for advice such as Women’s Health or other relevant organizations/companies.

  6. In my opinion, I believe social media is helping our efforts to lead healthier lives because these web 2.0 technologies are keeping us more informed than in the past. I first heard about Michele Obama’s fitness program through Twitter. Through this medium I was able to do addition research on the program to get a better understanding. I feel as though advertisements, rather than social media, is what is causing some people to believe social media is hurting individuals’ lives. Advertising campaigns focus too much on people’s features and distort individuals bodies, which make young kids (especially females) feel all “cool”/”popular” celebrities look this way.

  7. Like others have posted before, I believe social media can be an excellent platform for encouraging others to work towards their workout goals. Some people may find the motivation to join a group and discuss their daily routines whether it be in the gym, or whether supporting others in their achievements. Like all forms of social media, I believe certain platforms allow for the best results, and it might be best if blogs were used as a way to promote healthy lifestyles. Reading about a person’s struggles and triumphs can push people off the couch and stay active. Since blogs are essentially public journals, it can be a great reference for the writer to see his or her progress over time.

    When it comes to social media advertising an unhealthy lifestyle, like you and others said, I think it does promote some unhealthy activity. Though the choices are in the hands of the consumer, a user might be impelled to buy “just one” unhealthy snack. Most of the time, “just one” never happens, and people often begin to binge eat. Consumers choosing to do so may feel impelled to continue eating more than before.

    I have a hard time believing that social media is the cause of weight gain and obesity, but I do believe there is a correlation with obesity and social media. Those spending more time on social media may tend to have a sedentary lifestyle. This may only be because those with more inactive lifestyles go onto social media instead of going out and doing other things. However, I do not believe the use of social media will cause some to gain weight or be obese, but instead, I believe it’s a lifestyle choice.

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