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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.
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.