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Environmental factors increasing consumers' food intake: developing effective intervention strategies to faciliate consumers' self-control

Final Report Summary - FOOD INTAKE CONTROL (Environmental factors increasing consumers' food intake: developing effective intervention strategies to faciliate consumers' self-control)

Unhealthy food choices and eating too much are important risk factors for diet-related illnesses (such as diabetes, cancer), and for early deaths as a consequence of these illnesses. As a result, the challenges of overweight and obesity are very high on the agenda of the European Commission. It is increasingly recognised that the (obesogenic) environment is a key factor in over-consumption. Subtle factors in the food consumption environment stimulate consumers to consume more than is good for them, often without consumers recognising it. An important policy challenge is to stimulate environments that help consumers to better self-regulate their behaviour, for which we need to understand the environmental cues that cause consumers to unknowingly overeat. The research in this project focused on environmental cues that affect food intake. Methodologically, the proposed project combined laboratory experimental studies on food intake in the outgoing phase at Cornell University with follow up and intervention testing studies in the return phase (Wageningen University). More specifically, the research objectives of this project were to (1) understand how and when the food environment impacts consumers' self-control and food intake, (2) critically assess novel intervention strategies that support consumers' self-regulatory ability to overcome over-consumption, (3) develop key policy recommendations on real-life interventions that weaken consumers' unhealthy food impulses and strengthen consumers' self-control strategies.

The work performed since the beginning of the project has focused on answering these scientific objectives. First, in understanding how and when the food environments impacts self-control and food intake, experimental studies were designed focusing on the role of consumption norms, portion sizes, and the role of advertising (i.e. restaurant commercials and exercise commercials). A second series of (pilot) studies focused on an increasing number of meals and snacks consumed away from home. Giving in to temptation is easy especially in less structured choice environments such as restaurants and stores when consumers are often hungry and looking for a quick meal or snack. A second set of studies examined small nudges. Nudges are simple, low-cost solutions that cue healthy behaviours. By subtly tweaking choice environments (such as canteens, stores) consumers are gently pushed in a more responsible direction without limiting freedom of choice. Finally, various studies carried out during this project focused on understanding the underlying self-regulatory processes of consumers, such as their tendency to form compensatory intentions and guilt-reduction mechanisms. Two peer-reviewed papers are published and more papers are under review or in the writing stage. Dissemination of findings has taken place by several means (e.g. media, blog Food Intake Control, invited presentation, conference and seminar presentation).

The project has three training objectives. For me personally, this project enabled me to be trained and acquire new knowledge in a leading edge research environment at Cornell University in the US and in this way support my ambition to be a leading independent scientist in this research field in Europe. The first year at the Food and Brand lab of Cornell University contributed to building an international professional network in this important research area. Environmental interventions are important, since increased portion sizes, food advertisement and out of home consumptions are part of the changed food environment in both Europe and the US. The wider societal implications of the project so far are that I believe that a more action-oriented research approach on the role of environmental cues on food intake and self-control is of key importance to strengthen the European research base on experimental food research. In this way it will contribute to the well-being of European citizens.