How Researchers Used Articles in The New York Times to Predict Obesity Trends

Media mentions of healthy and unhealthy foods helped researchers predict a nation’s prevalence of obesity
Photo Modified: Flickr/samchills/CC 2.0


We are what we read.


The way that food in mentioned in the media — namely The New York Times and The London Times — is a good way to measure the growing prevalence of obesity over the last 50 years, suggests a new study conducted by researchers at Cornell and California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo.

The study tracked the mentions of healthy (five fruits and five vegetables) and non-healthy foods (five salty snacks and five sweet snacks) published in non-advertorial articles in The New York Times and The London Times.

The team found that indeed, the prevalence of American obesity was positively correlated with mentions of sweet snacks and negatively correlated with mentions of fruits and vegetables. For U.K. residents, The London Times yielded similar results.

Importantly, the “obesity followed mentions” models are stronger than the “obesity preceded mentions” models. In other words, researchers were able to anticipate a nation’s level of obesity by reviewing the buzz-worthiness of healthy or unhealthy foods. Researchers found less evidence to suggest that obesity rates would rise or lower, and be accompanied by interest in healthy or unhealthy foods.


“It may be possible to estimate a nation’s future obesity prevalence (e.g., three years from now) based on how frequently national media mention sweet snacks (positively-related) and vegetables or fruits (negatively-related) today,” researchers concluded. “This may provide public health officials and epidemiologists with new tools to more quickly assess the effectiveness of current obesity interventions based on what is mentioned in the media today.”