The analysis found that the share of tweets about healthy foods increased by 20% during the pandemic

The analysis found that the share of tweets about healthy foods increased by 20% during the pandemic

From May 2020 to January 2021, tweets about healthy foods increased by 20 percent compared to pre-pandemic estimates, while tweets about fast food and alcohol decreased by 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

More salad and apples, less than McDonald’s and KFC.

These are just some of the dietary changes people seem to have made during the first year of the pandemic, according to a new study led by College of Public Health researchers.

Large-scale shutdowns and restaurant closures in 2020 radically altered daily routines and changed how people access food and alcohol, but analysis of tweets during COVID-19 suggests that some people may have chosen to abandon the bread craze and embrace healthy eating habits-; on their neighboring environment.

Published online before print in Cell Press patternsThe study compared tweets related to healthy food, fast food and alcohol before and during the pandemic, and found that the share of tweets about healthy food increased by 20.5 percent during the pandemic, while the share of tweets about fast food and alcohol decreased by 20.5 percent. 9.4 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively.

The findings also pointed to associations between healthy behavior and proximity to grocery 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 groceries per capita also tweeted more about healthy foods and tweeted less about junk foods and alcohol during the pandemic than they did before the pandemic. Notably, the researchers found that people who lived in areas with more liquor stores per capita were more likely to tweet about alcohol.

Our findings provide insight into the impact of public health interventions on food and alcohol consumption during an epidemic, and reinforce the idea that when it comes to influencing health behaviors, an individual’s built environment matters.”

Mark Hernandez (SPH’21), corresponding study author and SPH alum, data scientist and researcher at MIT Lincoln Laboratory

Percentage of food-related tweets about healthy food, fast food and alcohol before the pandemic (May 2019 to January 2020) and during the pandemic (May 2020 to January 2021).

For the study, Hernandez and colleagues examined geotagged and public tweets in the United States that mentioned healthy food, fast food, and alcohol before the pandemic (May 2019 to January 2020) and during the pandemic (May 2020 to January 2021). The researchers linked geotagged tweets to US counties to examine the relationship between neighborhood characteristics and changes in eating and drinking habits, and obtained data from Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports to understand where residents were able to spend more time at home.

This tweet analysis provides a more accurate and realistic understanding of potential changes in food consumption during COVID-19, filling in gaps from previous research that relied primarily on traditional survey data subject to biased self-reports. On the other hand, social media data provides an opportunity for natural observation of voluntary information about audience attitudes and behaviours.

“Twitter provides a window into the everyday attitudes and behaviors of people that surveys may struggle to capture,” says study co-author Nina Cesar, a postdoctoral fellow in Biostatistics and Epidemiology Data Analytics Center (BEDAC). “In the context of diet, food diaries and self-reported eating habits are known to be susceptible to response bias. Unsolicited reports of food consumption on Twitter may more accurately reflect food preferences and habits.”

Tweets about healthy food increased in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., except for Massachusetts and Montana, where tweets about healthy foods decreased by 9.3 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively. The largest increases in healthy tweets were in Wyoming (up 62.1 percent), Vermont (57.4 percent) and Washington (46.5 percent), while the largest decreases in fast food tweets occurred in Rhode Island (down 69.4 percent) and Wyoming. (down 68 percent). Tweets about alcohol declined most in Alaska (down 39.7 percent), Hawaii (down 38.7 percent) and Vermont (down 37.6 percent). Alcohol-related tweets increased in only 6 states, with the highest increase in South Dakota (up 30.6 percent).

Besides “salad” and “apple,” other healthy food terms often on Twitter during the pandemic included “chicken,” “corn,” “eggs,” and “peanut butter.” In addition to “McDonalds” and “tequila,” common terms for fast food and alcohol were “Taco Bell,” “Starbucks,” “Chick-Fil-A,” “KFC,” “Chipotle,” “Beer,” and “wine and.” Vodka and Mimosa.

The researchers say the findings highlight the need for policies that increase access to healthy food options, particularly in areas that lack grocery stores.

“Policies can help motivate new grocers to open and store fresh foods at affordable prices, or focus on investing in local food economies and strengthening food access programs,” Hernandez says. “They can also promote conditions in which essential workers have more time and resources to access and prepare healthy foods.”

These observations from the digital world and the built environment in the real world are astounding, says Eileen Nswize, senior author of the study and associate professor of global health at BUSPH.

“Our data support well-known associations between social determinants of health and health outcomes,” Nswize says. “These findings also reinforce the need to shift the narrative around health behaviors from blaming individuals and societies to policies and structures that lead to poor health.”

At SPH, the study was co-authored by Shaun Moody, research assistant and MPH student at the time of the study; Kanesha Mittal, a statistical programmer at BEDAC and an MPH student at the time of the study. Quynh Nguyen, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, was also a co-author.


Journal reference:

Hernandez, Massachusetts, et al. (2022) Diet during the COVID-19 pandemic: Twitter data analysis. patterns.

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