A team of nutrition experts is deep into extended research on links between the health of Australia’s young adults, social media messaging, and the art of marketing – or how to communicate a difficult subject effectively.
The aim of the research, by Monash’s Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food, is to figure out how best to talk about health to the hard-to-reach age group of 18 to 24-year-olds. How can health professionals get through those focused on their health today, and not in the future?
This age group, according to team member and research officer Annika Molenaar, is at a “critical stage of life for the encouragement of healthy behaviours such as healthy eating and exercising”.
Molenaar is a co-lead author on a recent paper (Language of Health of Young Australian Adults) – one of several by the team – in which 166 young adults, 63% of whom were tertiary students, answered questions online about health and healthy eating over four weeks.
One of the key start-points for the research is data from national surveys showing that young adults rate poorly in accessing healthcare and, in general, have worse health than adolescents.
“During the transition from adolescence to adulthood, overall diet quality appears to reduce, and compared to both younger and older age groups, YA consume less fruit and vegetables, and more energy-dense, nutrient-poor fast food,” the paper states.
“Physical activity has also been found to decline during the shift into adulthood from adolescence, and appears to continue to decline with age. These factors contribute to the increasing prevalence of weight gain in YA, particularly in the first years of tertiary education, and the subsequent risk of developing chronic diseases later in life.”
Emphasising positive communications
However, the Monash research takes a sideways step from documenting what’s bad and harmful in favour of offering potential ways to amplify positive health communications from health professionals to young adults. They cite famed US psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett’s “emerging adulthood theory”, which describes a time in which the age group becomes more independent and begins setting up adult values.
“This could include the value placed on health-enhancing behaviours,” the Nutrients paper proposes, “and the formation of habits related to these behaviours such as substance use, eating and physical activity; therefore, targeting this potentially malleable age group could be an impactful health promotion effort.”
The project began several years ago when the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) called for research regarding obesity in the young adult age group. The team was initially led by the late Associate Professor Cate Lombard, who passed away, aged 60, in 2018.
The team began collaborating with RMIT marketing academics Professor Linda Brennan and Professor Mike Reid to better understand the way some corporates use the techniques of marketing to target audiences.
Where marketing meets nutrition
Monash Department of Nutrition Dietetics and Food senior lecturer Dr Tracy McCaffrey says the project brings marketing ideas to nutrition issues.
“What we’re trying to do is teach nutrition and health professionals – like myself and Annika – the ‘Marketing 101’, and how to use social marketing principles for the greater good. Our long-term aim around this is to deliver training for health professionals.”
Within the suite of published papers, the team has found:
Social media influencers and food brands have higher reach online than nutrition experts and health promotion organisations
The latest Nutrients paper is essentially an extended piece of market research revealing how young adults perceive health, wellbeing, social media, and nutrition.
“The novelty of our work is that we’ve looked at health overall, rather than specific topics such as alcohol, smoking and healthy eating,” said Dr McCaffrey.
Most of those who participated online believed that – due to their age – they were in the peak of health. For them, health was a holistic balance between many aspects of life, including physical, social, emotional, financial, and spiritual wellbeing. Mental health, both the reality and also the prospect of issues surrounding it, was a priority for most. The study found that young adults, while keen to be healthy, often did nothing about it due to perceived obstacles such as time and money.
Government attempts to translate nutrition evidence, such as with the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, didn’t capture young adults’ attention, and were seen as unrealistic and not relatable to real life. Lifestyles portrayed on social media were often contrary to government health messaging, but could be seen as “ideal”.
“We need to learn the language of young adults, or the group we’re targeting, to understand what’s important to them. This may be different to what we as researchers perceive as being important.”
“The comparison to the healthy ideal either motivated participants to change their behaviours to be more like the social media influencers, or created a pressure to conform to these standards they often perceived as unachievable,” says Molenaar.
The young adults surveyed preferred short-term health benefits, with males more often concerned about being physically strong, and females slim and toned. The team concluded young adults need motivations and incentives in health, wellbeing and nutrition relating to direct outcomes. Therefore, potentially effective ways to communicate “may include reducing and dispelling inconsistent messages by increasing knowledge of healthy food and recipes that are quick and affordable, and promoting the short-term benefits of healthy behaviours such as mental wellbeing and capacity for physical activity.”
Putting health in the ‘too-hard’ basket
Molenaar says healthy eating and good nutrition can be perceived by young adults as too hard.
“We need to find a way to communicate with young adults in a way that makes sense to them, and shows things they could see themselves doing, rather than having them ignore the message. However, health communications can only do so much without systemic environmental change that supports healthy behaviours, and makes eating healthy affordable and accessible.”
“Some of our findings confirm anecdotal evidence, as well findings from other studies, but what’s different about our work is that we plan to specifically use these insights to inform the next steps” says Dr McCaffrey. The next phases of the extended research aims to dig further into communication strategies that engage young adults.
“Annika’s work really highlights the different ways that young adults talk about health,” says Dr McCaffrey. “As nutrition and health professionals, we need to be really careful about what we say, and sometimes this is too complex, particularly in large-scale public health campaigns. Our colleagues who work one-on-one with clients can listen and provide tailored advice, while these broader campaigns are harder to tailor to individual needs.
“We need to learn the language of young adults, or the group we’re targeting, to understand what’s important to them. This may be different to what we as researchers perceive as being important.
“We need to learn to listen to our communities, and prioritise their needs. For example, we tend to just talk about the food you eat, not about how food makes you feel.”