If only there were a way to make eating healthy more of a habit and less of chore…to turn dieting into routine and binge eating into a rarity…to practice nourishment and moderation instead of indulgence and regret. Well, there may be hope after all. New research appearing in the journal Marketing Science claims to have identified the most effective behavioral “nudges” that promote healthy eating.
Specifically, a team of researchers led by Romain Cadario of the IÉSEG School of Management in Paris, France examined 96 studies that tested various interventions focused on improving food choices and eating habits. Their goal was to determine which interventions were most effective, and why.
To conduct their analysis, the researchers divided the various types of interventions into seven general categories, described below:
- Descriptive nutritional labeling. Descriptive nutritional labeling seeks to improve eating habits by providing calorie counts or other relevant nutritional information on food packages or menu boards in restaurants, cafeterias, and grocery stores.
- Evaluative nutritional labeling. Interventions of this kind are similar to descriptive nutritional labeling interventions, but add special symbols or logos (for example, heart-healthy logos or smileys on menus) to help consumers identify healthy food choices.
- Visibility enhancements. Visibility enhancement interventions draw consumers’ attention to the availability of healthy food options. For example, interventions of this kind put healthy foods at eye level in grocery stores or place healthy options on the first page of restaurant menus.
- Hedonic enhancements. Hedonic enhancements attempt to improve eating habits by making healthy selections more appealing through product descriptions (for example, describing cooked carrots as “twisted citrus-glazed carrots”) or by enhancing packaging or product displays.
- Healthy eating calls. Healthy eating calls directly encourage people to be better (for instance, by employing signs or stickers reading “Make a fresh choice” or “Have a tossed salad for lunch,” or by giving people the opportunity to change an unhealthy food choice or take a smaller portion).
- Convenience enhancements. Convenience enhancement interventions increase the ease with which consumers are able to make healthy food choices. For instance, an intervention of this kind might offer pre-sliced fruits and vegetables or include more healthy options in grab-and-go lines.
- Size enhancements. Size enhancement interventions modify the composition of meals by either increasing the amount of healthy food in a given meal or reducing the amount of unhealthy food.
From a theoretical standpoint, the researchers refer to descriptive nutritional labeling, evaluative nutritional labeling, and visibility enhancements as “cognitively-oriented nudges.” This is because these types of interventions tend to appeal to reason and judgment. They refer to hedonic enhancements and healthy eating calls as “affectively-oriented nudges” because these nudges tap more directly into the emotions underpinning food consumption and eating habits. And, they refer to convenience and size enhancements as “behaviorally-oriented nudges” as they focus most directly on changing the behavior of food selection and purchasing.
What did they find? As seen in the chart below, although all intervention types were effective in promoting healthy eating, the behavioral-oriented nudges were most successful. Specifically, size enhancements were found to be the best way to improve eating habits.
How big is the difference? Big enough to matter, suggest the authors. They write, “Compared to the typical nudge study, one implementing the best nudge scenario can expect a six-fold increase in effectiveness.”
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