Search terms such as “vegan” and “mental health” have risen, while “fitness” and “obesity” declined significantly, according to University of Canberra study

A report, released on Monday by Federal Assistant Minister for Health Dr David Gillespie, has for the first time looked at how Australians search for health and nutrition online.

Study author, Dr Michael Jensen, a senior research fellow at the University of Canberra, says that while online interest in nutrition and health information is increasing – with searches for fruit, vegetables and nutrition growing steadily – many Australians still have poor health literacy.

“In addition the biggest concern for Australians living in rural and remote areas is access to healthcare services,” says Dr Jensen, highlighting the need for improved online resources for these communities.

His report found that around seven million Australian adults are not actively managing their health through diet and exercise.

Furthermore, only 62% scored highly on a health literacy test.

According to a nationally representative survey, 66% of the population search online for health information, and 64% search for health and nutrition.

However 71% request better health and nutrition information to be made available online.

Based on Dr Jensen’s research, Google five-year search trends for three topic areas, each representing around 100,000 searches per month show:

  • Food related categories of Vegan (+55%) Vegetables (+17%) and Fruit (+11%) rose, while Gluten, Organic and GM Food searches were stable or declining.
  • The health management-related categories of the Nutrition (+12%) and Self Care (+32%) increased, while Fitness and Healthy Eating declined significantly.
  • For health outcomes, Mental Health (+33%) rose, while, Obesity (-7%) trended down.

Here is a breakdown of the five-year trend for searches of the following Nutrition and Health terms: Self care, Healthy living, Fitness, Nutrition, Pregnancy, Nutrition, Vitamins, Allergies and Birth Control.

Search patterns for mental health have shown positive growth in awareness of the topic as well as available resources.

“The top search terms are all searches for specific government programs and information services. This would suggest that existing government public information campaigns regarding mental health are effective,” says Dr Jensen.

Meanwhile searches for obesity have seen a downtrend from 58% at its peak in 2013 to 50% at its peak in 2017.

“As a key driver of many chronic diseases, it is a worrying trend,” he says.

Asthma also appears to be a health issue that Australians seek to manage on their own.

The data demonstrates that search trends react to current events – with a dramatic spike in November 2016 after the serious bout of thunderstorm-induced asthma which caused several deaths in Melbourne.

In rural areas the largest concern appears to be access to medical services and professionals, writes Dr Jensen.

The most prevalent topics among rural residents include:

  • Lack of hospital staffing;
  • The need for medical professionals;
  • The need to train medical professionals;
  • Mental health issues; and
  • Women’s Health.

“This suggests that it is important to understand what persons do in rural Australia to manage the lack of access to medical care,” concludes Dr Jensen.

Women’s health searches were also popular as the Rural, Remote and Regional Women’s Network has an active Facebook page.

As with farmers and rural Australians, Aboriginal groups were most significantly afflicted by mental health issues.

However, there is also a lot of discussion about what constitutes a healthy diet, with some comments suggesting a return to a traditional diet composed of fish and seafood and locally grown produce rather than food obtained at national supermarket chains.

Fresh salmon with parsley and lemon slices

Minister Gillespie says the research into how Australians explore food and health topics online can help in the development of programs, leading to better health outcomes.

“The cost of healthcare in Australia has increased more than threefold in the last 15 years,” says the minister.

“One way to reduce this burden of healthcare costs and reduce chronic illness is to encourage all Australians to proactively focus on better nutrition and health management.”

Bayer partnered with the University of Canberra to conduct the study and commissioned the report.

Based on the report findings, Bayer has announced a partnership with Nutrition Australia to coincide with National Nutrition Week 2017 (October 15-21)  and World Food Day (October 16).

It is the principal sponsor for Nutrition Australia’s ‘Try for 5’ program, aimed at increasing vegetable consumption.

The Try for 5 hub will include digital resources to increase health literacy, with aims to support women and children, as well as rural and remote communities.