Our modern world is one of plenty. In supermarkets, consumers are surrounded by a multitude of options in every single aisle while online delivery services allow users to order food from any imaginable cuisine, at any time of day, for any meal. But in a world of so many options, how do we decide what to eat? You might think it’s as simple as choosing what you feel like, but the latest evidence shows it’s more complex than that.
Our food choices are influenced by many things beyond hunger. Personal taste, family preferences, cultural influences, emotions, social influence, and convenience all come into play when choosing what to eat.
Nudging consumers in the right direction
A recent meta-analysis found that nudges, which are interventions that influence behaviour without using economic incentives, can strongly affect food choices to the extent that they can decrease an individual’s daily energy intake by up to 209 calories (874 kJ) – equivalent to the calories in 2 Tim-Tams or a slice of pizza. [i]
There are three types of nudges:
- Cognitive nudges provide consumers with information like nutrition facts or make healthier options more visible by placing them at eye level or at the checkout.
- Affective nudges are aimed at an individual’s emotions, without necessarily altering their knowledge. Examples include pleasure appeals like making healthier options more visually appealing or having exciting descriptions on their packaging.
- Behavioural nudges try to directly alter an individual’s behaviour, without necessarily changing their emotions or knowledge, like increasing the portion sizes for healthier foods, and decreasing the portion size of unhealthier foods in cafeteria settings.
Of these three types of nudges, the study found behavioural nudges were by far the most effective compared to cognitive and affective nudges. Behavioural nudges were able to reduce daily energy intake by 209 calories (874 kJ), whereas cognitive and affective nudges were found to reduce daily calorie intake by 64 (268 kJ) and 129 calories (540 kJ) respectively.
The authors suggested behavioural nudges work because they subconsciously change behaviour without relying on altering individuals’ beliefs or goals, which can be challenging if they know nothing about healthy eating. They also found that nudges work best when focused on reducing unhealthy food intake compared to increasing healthy food intake or reducing overall energy intake. To implement behavioural nudges, the authors suggest retailers need to alter shopping environments to make healthier options more visible. Also, they suggest cafeterias can reduce the size of plates, glasses and portions to reduce the amount people serve themselves.
Social media influences what we eat – for better or for worse
To add more complexity to the equation, a 2020 study found that the food choices of social media users are influenced by what they think their friends eat. [ii] Facebook users were found to consume significantly more unhealthy foods and drinks if they believed their social circles ate a lot of those foods as well. On the flip side, those who thought their friends ate a healthy diet were found to eat more fruits and vegetables. The perception of how their friends eat came from seeing friends post about the food and drinks they consumed, or a general impression one has of their friends’ overall health. The fact we are influenced by online perceptions about how others eat suggest that social media could also be used as a tool to ‘nudge’ users’ eating behaviours, particularly young adults and adolescents as they spend so much time interacting with their friends online. By promoting positive health messages on social media surrounding healthy food choices and non-restrictive relationships with food, users’ could be subconsciously nudged into making healthier food choices.
There’s a whole body of new research being published about nudge theory and choice architecture – while it may not all be conclusive, what it does tell us is that consumers rarely make choices in a vacuum. This research drives home the message that healthy eating is not as simple as providing more education – nudging consumers to eat better requires a concerted and coordinated effort from all players in the food system, including marketers, retailers, and even the more obscure players like cafeteria designers!
1. Nudges are an effective way to push consumers towards healthier diets – with behavioural nudges, like providing smaller plates or smaller portion sizes, the most effective nudge.
2. Social media can push consumers diets in a healthier or unhealthier direction – depending on how their friends eat – as users tend to copy their friends’ behaviours.
[ii] Aston University. “Social media users ‘copy’ friends’ eating habits.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 February 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200207074715.htm>.