Health: Twitter shows COVID-19 promoted healthy eating in the US - study

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Although people have blamed COVID-19 lockdowns for their alleged consumption of fast food and weight gain, it seems that this is not true if one looks at the share of Twitter messages (tweets) about healthy food that were dispatched to relatives, friends and acquaintances.

A new study at the Boston University School of Public Health maintains that from May 2020 to January 2021, the share of tweets sent by Americans about healthy foods increased by 20 percent compared to pre-pandemic estimates, while fast-food and alcohol tweets decreased by 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Thus, they apparently satisfied their hunger less with McDonald's hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken delivered on motorcycles.

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The widespread lockdowns and restaurant closures of 2020 drastically changed daily routines and how people accessed food and alcohol, but an analysis of tweets during COVID-19 suggests that some people may have chosen to forgo the baking frenzy and embrace more healthy eating habits – depending on their neighborhood environment.

The study was published in the journal Patterns under the title “Diet during the Covid-19 pandemic: an analysis of Twitter data.”

The findings also linked healthy behavior and being near grocery stores/supermarkets or liquor stores among those who were able to stay home more during COVID-19; people who spent more time at home and lived in neighborhoods with more grocery shops per capita also tweeted more about healthy foods and tweeted less about fast foods and alcohol during the pandemic than they did before the pandemic. The researchers found that people living in neighborhoods with more liquor stores per capita were more likely to tweet about alcohol.

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“Our findings provide insight into the impact of public health interventions on food and alcohol consumption during the pandemic and reinforce the idea that when it comes to influencing health behaviors, one’s environment matters,” said co-author and data scientist Mark Hernandez, who conducts research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Study method

For the study, Hernandez and colleagues examined geographically tagged, public tweets in the US that mentioned healthy food, fast food, and alcohol before and during the pandemic.

This analysis of tweets provides a more accurate and realistic understanding of potential changes in food consumption during COVID-19, filling in gaps from prior research that has relied primarily on traditional survey data that is prone to biased self-reports, they noted.  Social media data, on the other hand, provide an opportunity for a natural observation of voluntary information about the public’s attitudes and behaviors.

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“Twitter provides a window into peoples’ day-to-day attitudes and behaviors that surveys may struggle to capture,” said study coauthor Nina Cesare, a postdoctoral student at the School of Public Health.

“In the context of diet, food diaries and self-reported eating habits are notoriously prone to response bias. Unsolicited reports of food consumption on Twitter may more accurately reflect food preferences and habits.”

Nina Cesare

healthy food tweets increased in all 50 states and Washington, DC, except for Massachusetts and Montana, where tweets about healthy foods decreased by 9.3 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively.

Besides “salad” and “apples,” other frequently tweeted healthy food terms during the pandemic included “chicken,” “corn,” “eggs” and “peanut butter.” In addition to “McDonalds” and “tequila,” common fast-food and alcohol terms were “Taco Bell,” “Starbucks,” “Chick-Fil-A,” “KFC,” “Chipotle,” “beer,” “wine,” “vodka,” and “mimosas.”

The findings highlight the need for policies that increase access to healthy food options, particularly in areas that lack grocery stores, the researchers concluded. “Policies could help give incentive to new grocers to open and stock affordable, fresh foods or focus on investing in local food economies and bolstering food-access programs.”

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