Harnessing the digital space to improve the diets of the “young invincibles”
By Artur Direito, on 16 February 2018
By Monica Nour & Prof Margaret Allman-Farinelli, The University of Sydney
Contrary to popular opinion it is the young, not middle-aged, adult who is gaining the most body weight. For 18 to 24-year-old Australian women the rates of overweight and obesity have doubled in the past 20 years and males experienced a 30% increase. A quick glance at what is on the menu of the millennials makes one realise these findings are not so unexpected. The dietary patterns of this generation are characterised by the lowest vegetable intakes and high consumption of foods laden with saturated fat, added sugars and salt. However, young adults see themselves as invincible and the idea that poor diets will result in heightened risk of future chronic disease is not on their radar. They rarely engage in health promotion.
Our team of dietitians working in The Charles Perkins Centre at The University of Sydney, Australia, is exploring ways to engage this difficult to reach population in programs to improve their diet quality and the design of programs underpinned by the process of the Behaviour Change Wheel. Among our most recent projects is the use of Facebook and a gamified smartphone app to deliver interventions to improve vegetable intakes. In a previous mobile health study looking at the prevention of harmful weight gain, we found vegetables as the dietary factor mediating most favourable change in body weight.
More than 90% of young adults are actively engaged with social networking sites, but the application of these platforms in the research setting may not be so straight forward. For example, through focus group discussions it became apparent that young adults prefer to receive nutrition information through Facebook but are reluctant to share their beliefs and intentions through posts or share their own material such as progress with eating more vegetables.
The effective use of social media to improve nutrition knowledge has already been demonstrated. However, we are uncertain if it can be used to actually change behaviours. Our formative research indicates motivation to improve vegetable intakes builds from meal inspiration images, cooking videos and messages emphasising the immediate health benefits of improving vegetable intake such as skin hue and appearance. Using the social media platforms gives the opportunity for change with support from the research team.
Taking an iterative co-design approach our research team has refined the intervention components so that the messaging and tools address the real life barriers and solutions to consuming vegetables as identified by young adults. The effectiveness of Facebook and our gamified app (Figure 1) as platforms for delivering this intervention to change vegetable intake is currently being examined in a randomized factorial design study.
Questions for group discussion:
- Is there a place for social media in changing the nutrition behaviours of young adults?
- What limitations should researchers keep in mind when designing interventions using modern communication platforms such as social media and mobile apps?
Margaret Allman-Farinelli is Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at The University of Sydney. She leads the Wireless Wellbeing node within The Charles Perkins Centre and supervises six PhD students who are exploring the diets of young adults including the determinants of the obesity epidemic, and the role modern technology in interventions targeted at improving their nutrition.
Monica Nour is completing her PhD in public health nutrition at The University of Sydney with a focus on the use of digital platforms to enhance vegetable intake in young adults.