Associations between state-level obesity rates, engagement with food brands on social media, and hashtag usage

Yuanqi Gu, Jaime Coffino, Rebecca Boswell, Zora Hall, Marie A. Bragg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Food advertisement exposure is associated with increased caloric intake, but little is known about food/beverage placements in the digital media environment. We aimed to examine the correlation between the number of people who follow food and beverage brand social media accounts (i.e., user engagement) and state-level obesity rates; quantify social media followers’ use of “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” hashtags; and analyze the relationship between user engagement and hashtag usage. We identified the 26 fast-food and beverage brands with the highest advertising expenditures and used Demographics Pro to determine the characteristics of social media users amongst the 26 brands. A series of regression analyses were conducted that related the mean percentage of brand followers and state-level obesity rates. We then identified 733 hashtags on Insta-gram and 703 hashtags on Twitter, coding them as “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “neutral”, or “unrelated to health”. Intercoder reliability was established using ReCal2, which indicated a 90% agreement between coders. Finally, we conducted ANCOVA to examine the relationship between the mean percentage of brand followers and their hashtag usage. There was a significant, positive correlation between the state-level obesity rate and the mean percentage of followers of sugary drink or fast-food brands on Instagram and Twitter, but such a correlation between obesity and low-calorie drink brand followers was only found on Twitter. Our findings illustrate the relationship between the social media food environment and obesity rates in the United States. Given the high rates of engagement with food brands on social media, policies should limit digital advertisements featuring fast-food, sugary drink, and low-calorie drink brands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12785
JournalInternational journal of environmental research and public health
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021


  • Obesity
  • Social media

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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