It’s the new year and you know what that means…New Year’s resolutions! If you’ve ever uttered the words “New year, new me,” you are far from alone. In 2019, approximately 60 percent of Americans set resolutions and according to a recent survey, the top three were all related to diet and exercise: eating better, exercising more, and losing weight. Sound familiar?

While self-help gurus and exercise enthusiasts may tell us that a little self-discipline is all it takes to achieve these goals, research in the field of health and nutrition has shown that one’s food environment—the physical, social, economic, cultural, and political factors that impact the accessibility, availability, and adequacy of food within a community—can have a larger impact on our health outcomes than we think.

Put simply, the decisions we make about what to eat are shaped by our physical surroundings and networks—where we live, where we work or go to school, the people we see, how much money we make, and the food options made available to us as a result. These factors can reinforce good dietary decisions or promote harmful ones. For example, in low-income communities, healthy food options can become inaccessible without reliable transportation or may be too expensive for those living at or below the poverty line. Challenging food environments such as these (sometimes referred to as obesogenic food environments or “food swamps”) are often linked to micronutrient malnutrition and diet-related health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and other noncommunicable diseases. This is not a purely high-income country issue. With the rate of urban migration exploding in cities from Lagos to Delhi, those living on low incomes may rely on street vendors selling calorie-dense, yet nutrient-poor foods for a large percentage of their daily calorie intake.

person-holding-phone-taking-picture-of-served-food-693267.jpgPhoto by Helena Lopes.

Through grassroots organizing and government interventions, communities are starting to address systematic health disparities by demanding changes to their food environment. However, as more of us begin to live our lives online, and digital platforms blur the boundaries of food advertising, marketing, education, and retail, how might these powerful influences change our dietary behaviors? How might the food environment change in a digital world?

A recent article by Sabrina Ionata Granheim of Inland Norway University examines this very question.

While both national and international governing bodies have begun to promote the importance of “safe and supportive environments for nutrition,” the global shift towards digital technology, what Granheim calls the “digital turn,” will require a new wave of research and policy action to learn how we can use technology to nudge positive behaviors and ensure consumer protection. She notes that while “attention has increased on the use of technology and digital media… to sell unhealthy foods to children and adolescents,” we have only just begun to scratch the surface in determining how the digital food world will impact our choices (and ultimately our health) in the real world. According to the article, everything from online food delivery, social media influencers, health bloggers and those fun, short (and sometimes questionable) recipe videos we’ve all seen on our feeds can have an impact on our dietary behaviors. The question is whether these impacts will be positive or exacerbate already troubling negative health trends.

In this new series on food and health in a digital world, we will use Granheim’s digital food environment framework as a guide to discuss the trends and influences shaping how we buy, make, eat, and think about food in our digital landscape. Much like our analog food environments, the food industry, government actors, civil society, academia, media, and regular folks with a social media presence, are clashing online in a bid to capture our attention and influence our habits.

With the explosion of digital technology platforms and services in the developing world, this is a global trend to watch and presents an opportunity to discuss the role of digital literacy and protection in a new light. I hope you’ll join me on this journey as I explore the intersections between food, health, psychology and the digital world. Until then, best of luck keeping your resolutions and, in the meantime, I’d like you to ask yourself: How, if at all, is your digital world shaping your food decisions?

This post is Part 1 of a series.