If you're looking for a way to predict future obesity trends, maybe you should buy a newspaper.
I promise this post is not just a lame attempt to keep my profession afloat. It's not! There was a real study to back me up here.
That study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, looked at two media outlets — the New York Times and the Times of London — and found that in both newspapers, mentions of food might be indicators of how a nation's obesity level is trending.
"Newspapers are basically crystal balls for obesity," Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and a coauthor of the study, said in a news release about the data.
Here's what the study found: If a lot of sweets — and not a lot of good stuff, like veggies — make it into the pages of the newspaper, the population might be fatter in a few years.
For the study, researchers went back through years of archived stories from both papers. Foods that got mentioned in print were noted and catalogued, then compared with obesity data in the United States (for the New York Times) and the United Kingdom (the Times of London).
Here's what that data showed, the study's lead author, Brennan Davis, told The Washington Post: "The number of times unhealthy foods like sweet snacks (candies, cookies, cakes, etc.) are mentioned in the news today can [tell] us about national obesity prevalence three years from now."
Is the coverage influencing the culture or reflecting it?
"One explanation is that the news reflects increased societal interest in eating sweet snacks over fruits and vegetables each year, and it takes three years or so for people to gain weight after eating more of these sweet snacks on average," wrote Davis, an associate professor of marketing at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. "It is also possible that news journalists have increased mentions of sweet snacks over fruits and vegetables because it is more exciting to write about chocolate cake than steamed broccoli.
"Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that mentioning more sweet snacks and fewer fruits and vegetables over the past fifty years has influenced rather than reflected an increase in unhealthy consumption, which would subsequently increase obesity."
In a statement, Wansink said: "This is consistent with earlier research showing that positive messages — 'Eat more vegetables and you’ll lose weight' — resonate better with the general public than negative messages, such as 'eat fewer cookies.'"
So … whom do we blame for this? I don't really know, but, personally, I feel like the major takeaway should be that it's not The Washington Post, that's for dang sure.
You might have noticed that we weren't even included in this study, guys.
"Ha," Davis wrote, "but in this case, isn't it nice that we are implying that the New York Times — and not The Washington Post — may be causing the national obesity problem?"
Okay, yes. We'll take that.
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