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Using consumer science to improve healthy eating habits

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Identifying effective nudge factors for healthier eating habits

Understanding what drives consumer food choices is essential for policymakers tasked with improving people’s eating habits and well-being. To offer some answers, CONSUMEHealth studied the influence of individual, social and environmental factors.

Health

Effective strategies to improve dietary choices need to be informed by an understanding of how consumers actually make food decisions. These choices are the result of a complex mix of factors, including individual socio-demographic and psychological reasons. These can include the cultural context, societal values and peer activity. The wider environment also influences outcomes, governing how dietary information is communicated for instance. The EU-supported CONSUMEHealth project set out to improve healthy eating habits, based on consumer evidence. The research addressed pivotal issues such as what food information is best conveyed to consumers and how. It also considered what the best predictors for healthy eating patterns are: individual preferences; levels of involvement; expectations, or demographic indicators. “There is growing interest in changing behaviour by altering the ‘choice architecture’ around consumption, such as making healthy food labelling more appealing or information more accessible,” explains Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow Giovanni Sogari from the University of Parma, the project host. CONSUMEHealth’s findings suggest that food and nutrition researchers should not only analyse individual factors, but also integrate socio-ecological aspects. Basing some of their fieldwork in university campus dining facilities, the researchers found that the promotion of regular physical activity, alongside nutrition, cooking and meal-planning, was critical. Sogari’s website showcases the research and training information, while the inclusion of social media tools allowed direct communication with stakeholders.

Barriers and enablers

As part of the team’s qualitative research, 77 American and Italian university students participated in a total of 13 semi-structured focus groups. Qualitative software, CAQDAS NVivo11 Plus, was used to categorise the discussions. This data was then applied to an ecological model to link individual and social behaviours with environmental determinants. “Common barriers to healthy eating were found to be: time constraints; unhealthy snacking; the convenience of junk food; stress; and the cost of healthy food. Healthier behaviour enablers were improved food knowledge, meal planning, involvement in food preparation and physical activity,” notes Cristina Mora, project coordinator. ‘Nudge techniques’ were trialled to subtly guide participants towards healthier decisions. For instance, targeted messages about the benefits of fibre-rich whole grains were placed at point-of-purchase locations. The researchers found that these increased selection of whole grain over regular pasta. They also found that psychological benefits, such as reduced fatigue, had a greater impact than physiological health claims.

Translating findings into practice

Despite the growing trend for healthier lifestyles, along with increased knowledge about what this necessitates, European lifestyles are moving in the wrong direction. Diet-related health problems have dramatically increased over the past few decades, including obesity, some cancers and chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes. “Our results can help change this. Nutrition and dietitian experts, food service staff and consumer behaviour scientists should all work together to develop targeted, long-term strategies. These can include evidence-based, health message framing, balancing expert opinion with consumer knowledge and receptiveness,” adds Sogari. The team are now combining diverse disciplines such as sensory, social and behavioural sciences, economics and anthropology to better understand the cognitive processes involved in motivation. Future research should also focus on individual preferences in eating and purchasing contexts like workplaces and restaurants, as well as looking at different target populations such as children and the elderly.

Keywords

CONSUMEHealth, healthy eating, nudge, food choices, consumer, diet, nutrition

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