This site is all about exploring “how we think, learn, and feel” about health, and a particular interest of mine has been how those feelings and thoughts have changed over time. How have societal interests in certain health topics grown or declined as years have gone by? Previously, these sorts of trends would have been difficult to chronicle, requiring extensive study and an unfortunate amount of good memory.
In the current age, our reliance on the Internet has afforded the opportunity to keep impressively accurate and accessible sociological records. The search engine Google is the most popular online tool in the world for probing the breadth of information that the Internet has to offer, and Google Trends allows users to visualize the popularity of various search terms over time.
A term’s search frequency demonstrates its societal importance during one period of time as evidenced by the volume of people who were interested enough to look it up. While it’s unfortunate that we can only look back to 2004, Google Trends is a fantastic tool for visualizing variations in the popularity of specific search terms over time.
I decided to conduct a little research to see which search terms have waxed and waned throughout our society’s complicated history with health.
I started with the obvious: “health”. As I watched the Trends graph populate itself with data dredged from the history of the Internet, I was immediately surprised to find that, contrary to what I would have thought, the search term “health” has declined in use by 45% since 2004. Oddly enough, “healthy” has seen a proportional uptick.
See those slight fluctuations in the graph’s data? Google Trends records search popularity on a monthly basis. Each point on the graph represents the search popularity of the term for the duration of that month. Look again at the graph for “healthy” and you will notice that each year follows a similar pattern: a sudden spike in popularity followed by a gradual decline throughout the rest of the year.
Can you guess when that spike in searches hits?
Yep! January. New Year’s Resolution season!
Just for fun, let’s look at another graph, and try to guess the search term that it corresponds to. When you’re done thinking, click on graph title to find out if you guessed correctly.
Did you guess right? 🙂 As you can imagine, that spike in popularity during January is pretty common amongst the rest of the health-related terms we’ll be looking at.
Back to business. I was intrigued by this sudden spike in January and attempted to replicate it using other search terms.
Following naturally from our earlier mystery search term, “Fitness” and “Get Fit” both saw dramatic upswings in popularity during January, but trickled off as the year progressed. One can only hope that the searches dropped off because the January kick-off was incredibly successful, and not because the New Year’s Resolution pressure relaxed as January closed.
It is curious that “Fitness” retained a consistent level of popularity between 2004 and 2015, but “Get Fit” saw a steady increase over time. It is noteworthy that “Get Fit” is the active, intentioned counterpart to “Fitness”. Perhaps current Internet users have begun to favor the active search term because of the way bloggers tend to structure their titles (“how to be skinny” and “ten foods to eat every day”, rather than simply “skinny” or “healthy foods”).
For a rather dramatic example of this periodic popularity-climbing, take a look at the graph for “Healthy Recipes”.
As before, the largest uptick in popularity comes in January, and falls off quickly afterwards (again, hopefully because the aspiring cooks found all of the recipes they needed). The falloff is not immediate, as February tends to sit about 70% of the way between the values of January and December, which is when the search for “Healthy Recipes” hits its ultimate low point for the year.
This makes sense! For a majority of Christian America, December is a time for toffee and ham and fudge and turkey and pudding and gravy, not for quinoa and salads.
For a hilarious opposite, observe the graph for “butter”:
In most years, the solitary spike occurs in December, when holiday cooking takes over, followed by an eleven-month-long period of dormancy.
The New Year’s Resolution spike warrants a devoted research project all its own, for it was everywhere.
One observation I made was that terms such as “health”, “healthy”, “fitness”, and “get fit” saw less dramatic spikes and downswings in popularity than did the more specific, motivated terms such as “Weight Watchers” or “gym membership”. This may be incorrect, but my hypothesis is that people with internal health motivations will search year-round and for more general health guidelines and tips, whereas individuals with less health motivation are simultaneously more likely to search only once prompted and to seek out straightforward programs rather than attempt to make their own. Thus we may see enormous spikes in popularity of very specific health programs around January followed by an immediate drop off once New Year’s Resolutions give way to tax season.
Many of the terms I searched were predictably modern, such as Juice Cleanse.
Most of these came to no surprise, such as “Skinny”, which saw a 300% increase in search frequency since 2004.
Some were tragic:
Especially considering the countries responsible for most of the searching:
Some were inspired:
Some were puzzling, such as the graph below of “How To Eat Well”. I noticed the odd, Half Dome-shaped surge in 2011 (it climbed from 46 in April to 100 in June) and wondered what caused it.
As it turns out, June 2, 2011 was when the USDA introduced its new MyPlate nutritional guide. While it’s impossible to tell if this was the cause of the surge in searches for this particular term, the timing is suspicious!
A more dramatic example is featured below:
Wow. What happened just as the baby food diet hit an all-time high? Well, May 2010 marks Jennifer Anniston’s public endorsement of the baby food diet. It was less likely that people were searching this diet in May because they wanted to get on board, and more likely they had just heard of some wacky new Hollywood tale that they just had to read for themselves.
I searched many more terms than I could possibly cover in one post, but a few of my other favorites were “Multigrain” (compare to “Whole Grain”), “Lose Weight”, and the similar searches of “Low Fat”, “Low Sugar”, “Low Calorie”, and “Low Carb”. (Careful, because hyphenating “low-sugar” results in a very different trend line…)
Final tidbit: the huge starting point for “Low Carb” at the end of 2004 is probably due to the low-carb Atkins diet being declared among the most popular diets of 2004 by numerous magazines. Few people practice the Atkins diet today.
Trends are fun! Go poke around on Google Trends and see what you can discover!