/ Modified sep 4, 2013 7:39 a.m.

Researchers Use Social Media to Study Nutrition Patterns

Survey participants used Twitter to document everything they ate and drank, and why, for 3 days.


University of Arizona researchers led a study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research that showed a connection between social media and nutrition.

As part of the study, Melanie Hingle, an assistant professor at the UA's Department of Nutritional Sciences, asked 50 students to document everything they ate and drank for three days on Twitter.

The online food diary could include pictures of food, and a brief description of why students chose to eat that meal, she said.

Using a social media platform made it easy for participants to pull out their smart phones and document their meals in real time.

“There are a lot of social media tools out there but we wanted to use something that was familiar to a large majority of people,” Hingle said.

The students were given Twitter accounts with assigned numbers, and asked not only to tweet what they ate but also why.

“I’ve done the pen and paper, and computer journaling for food diary, which is fine but it’s time-consuming,” said Rachel Kranch, a graduate student in nutritional sciences at the university, who also participated in the study. “This one was much easier.”

Kranch and 49 other students were asked to select from a list of hashtags as a way to categorize their meals. For instance, #leftovers, #fruit, or #convenience.

The hashtags were food-related and behavior-related, Hingle said. They helped the researchers recognize eating behaviors and what drives them.

“A lot of dietary (patterns) are very habitual and unconscious,” she said. “You get into your routines; you start doing things a certain way, and to prevent yourself from having to think about food in all hours of the day, you get into habits. So, (the survey) draws awareness to the context and the reasons why you’re eating.”

Kranch said she was surprised when looking at her collection of food tweets.

“I knew that I ate a lot pretty frequently, but I just didn’t realize how frequently (it really was),” she said. “Every three hours, I would eat.”

The study is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for higher education to develop new approaches to obesity prevention.

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