The media's trending food stories can forecast how fat or skinny a country's population will be in three years, according to a new study

By Kylie Gilbert
July 22, 2015
Corbis Images

It's no secret that Americans' waistlines are getting bigger. But a new study from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab shows that we can actually predict future obesity levels simply by opening the newspaper and looking at news coverage of food trends.

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, analyzed 50 years of common "healthy" and "unhealthy" food words mentioned in articles in the New York Times (as well as the London Times, to ensure the findings held true outside the U.S.) and statistically correlated them with the country's annual BMI, the most basic method of calculating obesity.

Mentions of sweet snacks (like cookies, chocolate, ice cream) were related to higher obesity levels three years later, and the number of vegetable and fruit mentions were related to lower levels of obesity, the researchers found. (We recommend these 20 Sweet and Salty Snacks Under 200 Calories)

"The more sweet snacks are mentioned and the fewer fruits and vegetables that are mentioned in your newspaper, the fatter your country's population is going to be in three years," lead study author, Brennan Davis, Ph.D., said in an interview. "But the less often they're mentioned and the more vegetables are mentioned, the skinnier the public will be."

Interestingly, while people may expect media coverage to follow health risk trends and changes in obesity, the researchers actually found that changes in obesity came after media coverage of food consumption trends. In other words: "Newspapers are basically crystal balls for obesity," said study co-author Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. "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.'"

The study authors concluded that the findings may help public health officials anticipate future obesity levels and more quickly assess the effectiveness of current obesity interventions.

It's also a powerful reminder that the national media has a huge responsibility to continue to report on healthy food trends. Message received!

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