The New York Times is Making You Fat!

reading newspaper
Are newspapers subtly suggesting to us what to eat? The research says…well..maybe!

The old expression, “You are what you eat” can be given a new twist after the conclusions of a new study were released this month. We can now say, “You are what you read” or at the very least, “You eat what you read.”

According to a study published in BMC Public Health by a research team from Cornell University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the obesity rate for the United States and Britain over the last 50 years has directly correlated to what types of food were most often mentioned in the New York Times and the London Times. The studies authors, Brian Wansink and Brennan Davis, concluded that, “United States obesity prevalence is positively associated with New York Times mentions of sweet snacks… and negatively associated with mentions of fruits… and vegetables. Similar results are found for the United Kingdom and The London Times.”

The researchers looked at articles from the past 50 years of the New York Times and for the past 17 years in London Times and set values based upon mentions of unhealthy salty and sweet snacks on one side and mentions of fruit and vegetables on the healthy side. That was then correlated to the obesity rates (Body Mass Index or BMI) of each nation. They concluded that the predominance of one or the other, unhealthy versus healthy food references, in the papers could generally predict the rise or fall of obesity rates three years ahead of time.

The study stated that obesity rates in U.S. has risen from 13.4% to 33.8% since 1960 while the U.K. obesity rate has risen from 15% to 25.4% since 1993. The researchers analysis showed that articles mentioning vegetables declined by 46 %, and articles mentioning fruits, salty snacks, and sweet snacks increased (92 %, 417 %, and 310 %) over the last 50 years in the New York Times.

No doubt many of you are already scratching your head at the potential flaws in this correlation. Even the authors Wansink and Davis admit that their study has “limitations worth discussing.” They rightly acknowledge that their research is not exhaustive and does not show any real evidence that the Times newspapers are the cause of the obesity. They certainly did not have time nor desire to study the context of the mentions of those unhealthy or healthy food words. In some cases the articles might not even be talking about food. One example they give in the caveats is that the term popcorn might have been used in an article describing Styrofoam packing materials for shipping.

So we take this study with a few grains of salt (Oh No! Has that phrase sent you to the kitchen looking for potato chips?). But at Produce Buzz, we think there could be something to this “power of suggestion.” Who among hasn’t experienced the sudden craving for ice cream or chocolate or a buttery box of popcorn after an ever so slight suggestion from a faint familiar smell or a ever so subtle mention of one of our favorite snacks? Did we succumb to the urge or did we bury it in our subconscious only to have it revive soon after? Similarly, suggestions of our favorite fruits and vegetables can send us in the opposite direction. So how we eat can depend greatly on what our minds are ingesting. That’s a big part of our mission at Produce Buzz—to keep the good food in the front of our readers’ minds as much as possible so we can help turn the tide on obesity.

Fifty years of fat: news coverage of trends that predate obesity prevalence

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The New York Times is Making You Fat!

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