You Are What You Tweet: Using Twitter to Track Dietary Habits

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Some people use Twitter to keep up with the news, others to stay in touch with friends, but researchers at the University of Arizona have identified yet another potential use for the popular social networking site: keeping track of what people eat and why.

Led by Melanie Hingle, a UA assistant professor of nutritional sciences, the researchers set out to determine whether the popular social networking site could be used to capture, in real time, information about peoples' dietary choices and what motivates them.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggest that Twitter is an acceptable tool for collecting such information and could give people a better understanding of the relationship between what they eat and why.

Likewise, it could help health professionals as they work to develop the most effective health and weight-loss interventions for individuals.

"This helps us understand what is driving eating behavior, and that's important from a healthy eating program standpoint," said Hingle, a faculty member in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "If I am going to develop a program to promote healthy eating to people, I want to know what motivates them to engage in their current eating behavior so I can tailor that program appropriately."

The study stemmed from a special topics course Hingle taught at the UA on obesity prevention, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Challenge grant.

Class discussions often turned to the ways in which eating is influenced by context. For example, one might habitually snatch goodies from the office candy jar simply because it is there.

"The whole idea of the class was to point out how complex obesity is and how many factors influence its development – your physical environment, your social environment, who you spend time with – and if people were more aware of some of these factors, they could make changes," Hingle said.

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