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 ofnutritional 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," Hingle said. "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.

Obesity continues to be a major public health challenge in the United States, and the number of mobile apps dedicated to weight loss and health has increased dramatically in recent years as people have become more reliant on mobile devices, Hingle said. However, the majority of those apps lack hard data supporting their effectiveness.

Hingle and her colleagues chose to look at the feasibility and acceptability of Twitter as a tool for recording dietary information because it is free, widely used and provides an easy way to record data in real time.

The study's 50 participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 30 and were not students in Hingle's class, were given study-specific Twitter accounts and asked to "tweet" everything they ate or drank in real time for three consecutive days. They were asked to choose from a list of 24 provided hashtags to categorize the types of food they were eating and their reason for eating it. They also were asked to include descriptive information or photos identifying where, when, why and with whom they were eating. A tweet might read, for example: "Cheeseburger between classes at the Student Union #protein #convenience."

Frequently reported food categories included #grains, #dairy and #protein, while the most frequently cited reasons for eating were #social, #taste and #convenience.

After collecting the data, researchers used a computer program to visually map the correlations between what was being eaten and the reasons why.

"We were able to visualize relationships between eating behaviors and reasons for those behaviors in a novel way we haven’t really done before," Hingle said. "That allowed us to really see that there are, in fact, relationships, and those relationships do seem to align with the ones in the literature, which shows that convenience and cost are among the main motivators."

Since completing the study, Hingle and her collaborators, including UA nutritional sciences associate professor Randy Burd, UA computer science professor Stephen Kobourov and colleagues at New Mexico State University's Learning Games Lab, have developed a beta version of an iPhone app called "Eat It, Tweet It," designed to make it even easier for people to track their dietary behavior using Twitter.

The app, which connects to a person's personal Twitter account, provides the study's hashtag categories in a simple touchscreen menu, so users don't need remember them and type them in manually. Hingle plans to test the app with students in her nutrition classes. Future versions of the app, she said, will include the option of opening a Twitter account specifically to track your diet, for those who would prefer not to use their primary account to share what they eat with the Twitter-verse.

"It's good to raise awareness about your habits since a lot of eating behavior is unconscious or really habitual," Hingle said. "You tend to get in your groove and not get out of it, so this kind of shakes that up and makes you think about what's influencing you. It can help you develop new habits or just become aware of the ones that are not doing you any good."

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