For some areas of the country, limited access to healthy and affordable food is the first problem in chain of linked public health concerns. These areas have become known as “food deserts,” and mostly consist of urban neighborhoods and rural towns.

These types of areas are often associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related issues reflective of poor eating habits, and are often measured by the distance people have to travel to get to a large, respectable grocery store.

But what is harder to measure, is what these folks are actually eating at every meal.

A recent study shed light on this information void by data mining Instagram posts — Finally some scientific  good coming out of all of those hours users spend artfully arranging plates of food, overnight oats and smoothie bowls. The researchers looked at 3 million Instagram posts tagged with food-related words such as “pizza” or “tea.”

Next, the researchers, using US Census data, divided a map of the country into food deserts and non-food deserts. They also compared each desert with other surrounding areas to help minimize data based on culture. They then broke up food into categories where, for example, chicken and fried chicken were separated.


Every food-desert region of the country reported posts higher in cholesterol, sugar and fat than non-food deserts. Favorite foods also seemed to vary by region. The food-deserts of the southeast posted lots of bacon, brisket and grits while the non-food deserts posted more peaches, beans and collard greens. The Midwest had a similar trend. Generic tags like “meat” were popular along with hot dogs and hamburgers, while kale, spinach and turkey were favored by non-food desert posters.

The study acknowledged some of its shortcoming in that Instagram is more popular with women, Hispanics, Africa-Americans, young adults and urban/suburban residents and also more so among affluent areas. Instagram users also may choose to post on Instagram because hey assume their friends and followers will want to see a certain type of image.

All of these things mean the photos might not be completely representative of diets in food-deserts, but “with the rising trajectory of national health issues such as the incidence of obesity and the growing prevalence of diabetes and other related diseases, the concept of healthy food availability has become increasingly important in public policy,” the study states.

The study will hopefully show what access to healthy foods can have on the decisions people make in their daily diets.

(h/t The Atlantic)

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Meghan is a full-time writer exploring the fun facts behind food. She lives a healthy lifestyle but lives for breakfast, dessert and anything with marinara. She’s thrown away just as many meals as she’s proud of.