'Nudging' people in the right direction results in healthier eating

healthy lunch on cafeteria tray
CC BY 2.0 Brett L.

Research has shown that, when restaurants and stores implement a few simple strategies, people are more inclined to make good food choices.

It can be hard to stay on track with healthy eating, especially with so many tempting, not-so-good foods around. Educators, public health workers, and policy advisors have long debated how to walk the fine line between forcing people to eat better, in order to preserve their health and take a burden off the medical system, and not meddling in something that should be a person’s own choice.

Perhaps no laws or policies need to be changed, and maybe the solution is simpler than we think. According to an interesting article published in Stat, researchers have found that certain ‘creative nudges’ are effective at pointing people in a healthy direction, when it comes to choosing foods. You may not even be aware -- or perhaps you are -- but the point is that these nudges are a subtle yet useful approach that could make a real difference toward improving the American diet, if implemented widely.

1. Planning meals ahead

When students were asked to pre-order their school lunches online, as opposed to lining up in the cafeteria to choose on the spot, they made much better choices. The kids who ordered online were given nudges based on the official MyPlate dietary guidelines:

“Kids who chose all five of the recommended food items got a screen with a smiley face. Those who did not, got a screen asking if they wanted to go back; while they could decline that offer, the 'no' button was grayed out. Researchers found that students getting the MyPlate nudges selected significantly more fruit, veggies, and low-fat milk than students in the control group.”

2. Taking a stance

Teenagers love to be contrary and to challenge the status quo. They also have difficulty feeling motivated by long-term health goals, which seem so far removed from present-day decisions. Scientists decided to “harness adolescent values to motivate healthier eating” and discovered that, when healthy eating is framed as a rebellious stance against a manipulative food industry, teens were more inclined to embrace it. The study authors wrote:

“This treatment led eighth graders to see healthy eating as more autonomy-assertive and social justice-oriented behavior and to forgo sugary snacks and drinks in favor of healthier options a day later in an unrelated context.”

3. Menu description

The way in which food is described and menus are formatted has an impact on people’s decisions. When the names of dishes include descriptive adjectives, such as “creamy chicken pasta,” as opposed to “chicken pasta,” they become more appealing. If a name is catchy, it gets kids on board, too:

“In a study of 8- to 11-year-olds, carrots were added to their school lunches. When the carrots transformed into ‘X-ray vision carrots,’ the kids crunched away 66 percent of them, but they ate only 32 percent of carrots with the mild-mannered title ‘food of the day’.”

When healthier items are placed at the front of a menu in larger, more colorful fonts and easy-to-read columns, they are considered more seriously than less-healthy items at the back.

4. Supermarket design

When large arrows are placed on the floor, pointing shoppers toward the fresh produce section of a store, more people move in that direction. One store used arrows that measured 6 feet by 3 feet during a 14-day pilot project, with messages like “Follow green arrow for health” written on them.

“During this period, the intervention store experienced a significant increase in the proportion of spending on produce compared with other food. Despite the increase in spending on fruits and vegetables at the intervention store, however, the total food spending per customer did not change significantly."

This means that customers were trading in processed, pre-packaged options for healthy ones.

An additional step that supermarkets can take is to reposition healthy foods near the cash register. Sales do increase, even when people are aware that the positioning is strategic; they don’t seem to mind.

'Nudging' people in the right direction results in healthier eating
Research has shown that, when restaurants and stores implement a few simple strategies, people are more inclined to make good food choices.

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