The Relationship Between Social Media and Nutrition

By Abigail Zellmer

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Image Credit: Stephen Ausmus, via USDA

There is little doubt that social media is becoming increasingly prevalent in our daily lives. From a quick study break to helping us avoid the awkward stares we receive while sitting alone, the benefits of social media are impossible to overlook. Although it lacks a completely concrete definition, social media is generally defined as a method of communication used to facilitate social interactions on Internet-based sites, including mobile apps. What makes such sites so appealing is that they are generally free and allow users to keep in touch with people across the world. However, just as increased human interaction allows for germs to rapidly spread through communities, the millions of human interactions taking place every minute on social media sites allow ideas and habits that positively (and negatively) influence health to spread far beyond traditional community boundaries. An overwhelming number of responses come up when you visit a popular social media site and search for 'nutrition,' which makes it difficult to discern what advice one should really follow. Thus begs the question of whether social media is a positive or negative influence on the nutritional health of the general population. I contend that social media has the potential to be a positive influence on nutrition if reputable sources are successfully used to find healthy recipes, create safe environments for sharing, and spread accurate nutritional information.

In order to show that social media has a positive influence on nutrition when used in effective and truthful ways, I will first describe how vast the influence of social media is before explaining some of the simple ways in which social media has changed the way we research health and nutritional information. Looking at three different successful social media campaigns makes the bountiful advantages of using social media to promote nutritional health easy to see. Following those three case studies, I will give a quick summary of the positive influences social media has. It must be noted, however, that social media does not always have a beneficial impact on nutrition; however, simple techniques allow one to improve their nutrition by getting the most out of social media.

To understand the scope of this issue, one must grasp exactly how prominent social media is and how vast of an influence it has. Social media has dramatically changed how people get information, connect, and communicate. In 2013, it was reported that "1 in 4 people worldwide use social media and the total number of people using social networks increased from 1.47 billion in 2012 to 1.73 billion in 2013, an 18% increase" (Eldridge). Once geared primarily towards a middle class, young adult population, social media is increasingly utilized across the U.S. regardless of education, income, race, or ethnicity. As of 2013, "67% of US adults who are online use social networking sites" (Tobey). By next year, it is predicted that "the global social network audience will total 2.55 billion people" (Eldridge). The uses of social media can be classified into four categories: publishing, sharing, discussing, and networking (Helm). Luckily, people are not limited to performing these actions through just one social media site. Types of social media include blogs, photo sharing websites and apps, and professional networking. Currently, some of the most popular social networks are Facebook, Twitter, Photo Circle, YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Social networking is clearly a relevant aspect of the general population's daily lives and, as a result, has a significant influence on health and nutrition.

With the increasing popularity of the internet and social media sites in particular, the manner in which people now obtain health and nutrition information has shifted drastically. These sites have startlingly become the primary source of health information. Currently, "72% of adult internet users go online to find information about their health"; this can be anything from seeking a diagnosis, exploring treatment options, or searching for others who share similar health concerns (Helm). There is no doubt about the evolving relationship between social media and health information; however, there is growing concern over whether this is a constructive relationship. As marketing professional Lori Barber points out, consumers are now looking to blogs and social media communities for online opinions about recipes and food purchasing decisions. Even the simple choice of what to feed your children for dinner can be influenced by whether you see an ad for fast food or a post about the new healthy pre-packaged meals available at the grocery store in your Facebook newsfeed. This dependence highlights the growing influence the internet has, regardless of the reputability of the source.

The impressive reach social media has is easily seen by examining social media campaigns, which frequently, but not always, pair programs and other methods of distributing information with social media sites. A great first example of one such successful social media campaign is Food Hero, which was created by Lauren Tobey and Melinda Manore. Tobey and Manore wanted to determine the true power of social media, so they created a multichannel social marketing campaign with the help of the Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Nutrition Education Program (NEP). The social marketing campaign, named Food Hero, had a goal of increasing the amount and variety of vegetables and fruit consumed by Oregonians. Underlying that goal was the desire to empower the targeted audience to share information and champion Food Hero messages and posts within their networks of family and friends. The target audience was limited income mothers with young children living at home, who spoke Spanish or English and who used the internet (Tobey). Before the campaign was initiated, "only 26% of Oregonians consumed 5 or more serving of fruits and vegetables a day" (Tobey). In an effort to increase that statistic, Tobey and Manore decided to focus on meal planning, cooking, and ways to safely store food during this campaign (Tobey). In order to reach these mothers, Tobey and Manore distributed information through many channels, including a website, a community programming kit, purchased media, a monthly message package, and social media sites. Even though the campaign was set to last just a few months, their unprecedented success led them to extend the project.

Tobey and Manore did not have specific statistics to offer because all of Food Hero's social media sites are still actively collecting data; but it is considered thus far to be an incredibly successful campaign because it helped determine the best way to provide nutritional information via social media. Food Hero is similar to many other social media campaigns, but what really sets it apart from others is the fact that it collected and incorporated participant feedback (Tobey). By doing this, Food Hero was able to grow and evolve into a powerful resource for communities across Oregon. Overall, the focus of the campaign - meal planning, shopping, cooking, and safely storing food - was comprehensive. However, Food Hero did note that participants valued simple and healthy recipes and tutorials in the kitchen more than the other focuses (Tobey). Food Hero demonstrates the success that can result from using social media to target specific audiences and improve their nutritional health.

Food Hero provides an excellent example in terms of successful social media campaigns but it is not the only impressive illustration. The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which is a federally funded nutrition education program, expressed interest in investigating how to effectively use social media to reinforce the curriculum they were teaching in their program's classes. A research group at the EFNEP planned to combine supplemental social media support with in-class lessons in order to improve nutritional health behavior more than the in-class lessons were doing alone (Leak). Again, this is another social media campaign example that uses social media to supplement existing programs. Before using any social media, researchers conducted four focus groups (with an average size of seven) to collect background data about possible participants and general field data, as well as to explore what people would think about the creation of an EFNEP social media page. The focus groups yielded copious information about which social media sites are used most frequently, how trustworthy the internet is, what participants want to gain from the social media sites, how the page should be managed, and how posts should look (Leak). Overall, participants expressed their desire to see healthy recipes (other than the ones they had learned about in their EFNEP class), ways to substitute unhealthy ingredients for healthy ones, how to involve children in meal preparation in order to pass on healthy behaviors, and how to shop and save at the grocery store (Leak). Such desires were expected, so EFNEP began working to create a social media site that satisfied them.

Unlike some of the other research conducted about social media, EFNEP explored what their social media page should look like and how it should be managed in order to yield the best results. The focus groups stressed the importance of photos and visual appeals, concise, well-written messages, vibrant colors, daily status updates, professional posts, and even suggested an "ask the expert" section that would give immediate responses (Leak). EFNEP also examined one of the major concerns about using social media to distribute nutritional health information: trustworthiness. Their investigations found that people were hesitant to use social media for nutrition material and struggled to distinguish legitimate information from unsavory sources (Leak). In order to increase trustworthiness in a site, the focus groups suggested using phrases like "studies show" and "research finds" to make posts appear more valid, including links to additional information in case participants want to learn more about the topic, transparency about who has the ability to post, and facilitating a site where the general public would be able to post questions without the fear of being judged (Leak). The EFNEP social media site is one of the only ones in which the creators took into account ways nutritional educators could overcome concerns about trustworthiness while using social media. The EFNEP research focused on the creation of the most effective social media site rather than the overall influence of the site, so they did not offer statistics about the level of success their research had in changing behaviors relating to health. However, this study provides a foundation for other researchers to explore how to use social media to communicate health messages to low-income populations that would otherwise not have access to this information.

The #eatingoodtonight campaign also highlights different aspects of the relationship between social media and nutrition. This campaign, created and promoted by the social media account "The College Nutritionist," targeted the college-aged population rather than low-income populations. The goal of the campaign was to increase awareness of "energy-dense late night eating among college students" and to suggest strategies for healthful alternatives through already-existing social media sites (Paul). The campaign used a variety of different social media sites and accessed what site was most engaging and what types of posts produced the most positive response. #eatingoodtonight found that Instagram and Twitter engaged more followers than Facebook, and posts with vibrant colors and references to other social media accounts appeared to result in higher engagement (Paul). In conclusion, #eatingoodtonight reinforced the idea that there is abundant opportunity for targeted user engagement and increased reach for educational programs and information that nutritional professionals communicate via social media (Paul). Although it is hard to determine without more long term research, the creators of #eatingoodtonight believe social media could drastically improve the nutritional health of the general population (Paul).

#eatingoodtonight is a great example of the various forms of social media that can be used to target specific audiences. There is great overlap between the goals of the three social media campaigns and what they found to be true. Food Hero and the EFNEP both concluded that Facebook was the most engaging social media site and it is easy to see the heavy influence their target audiences (low income populations, especially low income mothers) have on that conclusion. In contrast, #eatingoodtonight wanted to target college students and thus found that Instagram and Twitter were the most engaging social media sites. All three social media campaigns looked closely at how to create the most effective social networking site to distribute nutritional information but did not determine the overall influence of their social media sites on improving the nutritional health of the general population. Further research is needed to quantify how much improvement in nutritional health is possible by using social media sites.

These campaigns demonstrate that there are several advantages associated with using social media to improve nutritional health. Simply put, the widespread and increasing use of social media makes it a great tool for engaging participants and communicating information because of the unique way it allows users to develop and exchange ideas (Leak). Previously, access to the internet and bandwidth was a limiting factor for nutritional education efforts in rural areas, but now social media and the ever-increasing spread of internet access has allowed us to overcome this barrier. Besides simply spreading information, Dr. Teri Burgess-Champoux pointed out that "social media provides opportunities to explore innovative approaches to participant recruitment and intervention delivery to diverse audiences." Governmental agencies were quick to recognize this potential and have now established their own social media sites as well as created educational materials to guide healthcare professionals in using social media. For example, "in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began incorporating social media into their health communication efforts and later created a toolkit based on lessons learned that includes advice on how to increase social media participation and develop science-based messages" (Leak). One of the biggest pieces of advice that is offered to those wishing to distribute nutritional health information via social media is that concerns about trust should be addressed when considering page content, as well as how to operate the page and create a safe environment for its users.

For individuals seeking to improve their own nutritional health, social media can provide a great source of motivation. Personal trainer Tara Sabo notes that there is an endless stream of information and positivity on social media that can help fuel you in small ways. Social media also links to tools and technology that can make it easier to track your health and fitness (Sabo). Credible websites on specific topics also help people gain support from others with the same condition or disease. From the view of a nutrition educator, social media tools have allowed nutrition and dietetics practitioners to reach broader audiences and connect directly with the public (Helm). Social media has opened up new avenues for communicating food and nutritional information and can be used as a great resource for virtual nutrition counseling, patient education, peer-to-peer support, and public health campaigns (Helm). Besides just spreading information to their current clients, nutrition and dietetics practitioners are using food and nutrition blogs and websites to educate the general public, attract new clients, network, promote books or other products, and build a professional brand (Helm). Using social media to obtain nutritional health information is cost and time efficient for both the individual seeking information and the practitioner distributing the information.

Straight from the CDC, the benefits of social media include increasing the timely dissemination and potential impact of health information, leveraging audiences networks to encourage information sharing, expanded reach to include broader and more diverse audiences, tailored messages to target specific audiences, and the facilitation of participation, conversation, collaboration, and public engagement (Helm). However, this is not to say that using social media to obtain nutritional health information is always successful. The same aspects that make social media a great way to distribute information make it very difficult to determine what material on the subject is legitimate. Not all nutritional information found on social networking sites is accurate, and it is easy for consumers to receive misleading information. Social media has allowed individuals without any nutrition credentials to communicate broadly and build large audiences (Helm). Anita Eldridge and Karen Ensle point out that it is important for consumers to understand nutritional-science-based evidence and how to find such data. The general public does not possess these skills, and in combination with the lack of time to research the authority of people posting information about nutritional health, many people either do not take advantage of the benefits of nutritional education available through social media or are following inaccurate advice.

Misinformation runs rampant on social media; however, this is not the only disadvantage to using social networking sites as sources of nutritional health information. Tara Sabo stated that, personally, the greatest drawbacks of using social media were "the vain-glorious selfies of beautiful women on Instagram," the unreasonable healthy living bloggers insisting the only way to be healthy was living in that particular fashion, unrealistic ideals and visual stereotypes that seem to be ever-present on the sites. It is easy to fall into the comparison trap and sink into a sea of self-criticism while on social media. On the other hand, Anthony Komaroff points out that social media influences what its members perceive as normal and acceptable which can be detrimental to nutritional health. For example, if people see their friends becoming heavier and heavier over time on social media, they may accept weight gain as natural and even inevitable (Komaroff). Instead of exercising more and eating less when their weight begins to creep up, the people will simply go with the flow and accept their deteriorating health. As much as we'd like to think that social media is the ideal way to improve the nutritional health of the general population based on the three successful social media campaigns mentioned above, there are some clear disadvantages.

We cannot avoid all the possible negative effects of using social media to improve nutritional health, but we can use it in the smartest possible way in order to avoid misinformation. While using the internet one must ask the following questions: Who or what organization is providing the information? Is the source reputable? Is the information provided based on facts, or biased by an opinion? Is the organization or author trying to sell a product? How long ago was the information posted? Has anyone reviewed the information? Does it simply sound too good to be true? (Eldridge). If you feel as though you don't have the time to go through all of those questions while just searching for a healthy recipe, there are other shortcuts you can take. Government social media sites, like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the CDC provide information that is science-based and from a reputable source (Eldridge). Both sites also work to explain the most current research and offer advice in simple terms that can be easily understood. Within the technology-driven and advanced society of the United States, there are thousands of apps to aid any interested consumer with health improvement, but in order to ensure accurate information, Anita Eldridge and Karen Ensle suggest making sure the app has been reviewed by a registered dietitian or another nutrition practitioner before using it. In terms of trustworthiness of particular sites, always look for biographies and credentials of the people who post, who exactly has the ability to post, and if you would feel safe while sharing on the site. We have a great opportunity to take advantage of vast amounts of nutritional health information available on social media sites, but it is important to make sure we are not following false information or advice.

Most people agree that taking the time out of their days to visit a nutrition practitioner is not a priority. It takes far less time to scroll through your newsfeed, so social media is the optimal choice for nutritional health information. Not only does it take less time, social media also contains an overwhelming amount of health information. Furthermore, social media is a great resource for motivation and positive feedback. As long as reputable sources are being used, social media can continue to have a positive impact on the nutritional health of the general public. Social media provides an excellent platform to communicate health and nutritional information, especially in our increasingly interconnected society.