Understanding food choices to create healthier eating habits
An EU-funded project is taking an innovative multi-disciplinary approach to improving our understanding of food choices. Knowledge gained will help policy-makers to 'nudge' people into eating more healthily, so reducing the incidence of food-intake disorders.
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The ongoing increase in diet-related disorders, such as obesity and diabetes, represents a serious health issue in Europe, with major social and economic consequences. There are many factors that determine what we eat, how much we eat, and when we eat. Understanding these factors is the key to promoting healthy eating.
Despite widespread health information, education and taxes on harmful foods, rates of obesity and related diseases remain high. As a result, governments worldwide are looking to improve citizens health by nudges - small behavioural stimuli that aim to change what people choose to eat.
To address the challenge, the EU-funded NUDGE-IT project is finding out what influences our eating choices. The NUDGE-IT consortium is taking a variety of approaches to investigate, in a cross-disciplinary way, decision-making in food choice. The overall aim is to generate predictive models that will guide the improvement of public health policies, says John Menzies of the University of Edinburgh in the UK. He believes these inexpensive and unintrusive stimuli can guide consumers toward a healthier diet, with great social or economic benefits at a population level.
Anchoring food-choice research
In an important step towards translating scientific findings into health policy proposals, the project team defined five key anchors or areas for targeting policy nudges: early life and formation of dietary habits; snacking; liquid versus solid foods; cognitive mechanisms; and stress. Consortium members are evaluating the most promising interventions.
Dietary habits are believed to form early in ones life, so targeting childhood food preferences seems a promising route to establish healthy adult dietary habits. Related to this is the hypothesis that erratic eating, or snacking, contributes to obesity. A NUDGE-IT study found that regular eating translates into lower weight gain for children, but has no effect on adults in terms of overall calorie intake or body mass index.
We can consume more calories in liquid than solid form. NUDGE-IT showed that people experience different senses of fullness with foods that differ in viscosity but are equivalent in calories; foods that are thicker make people feel fuller for a longer time, says Menzies. However, calorie content is more important than viscosity in determining the speed at which the stomach empties. These data may help us to optimise food formulations.
Optimising dietary choices requires us to process information about our needs and health status in combination with information about the variety of foods available. A project study showed that tailored information about health status can be beneficial. However, an unexpected finding was that only the group given generic information changed their dietary choices, suggesting that the current move towards personalised healthcare may have unexpected outcomes.
NUDGE-IT also provided support for the hypotheses that comfort eating can improve ones mood. Acute stress leads people to choose energy-dense, highly palatable foods over healthier alternatives. In other words, stress decreases dietary self-control, says Menzies. However, the project team emphasise that the impact of stress on food choice cannot be looked at in isolation; individual and social factors must also be considered.
Steering food policy
Specialists from fields such as neurobiology, brain imaging, psychology, behavioural economics, computational modelling and public policy are working together to develop new models, tools and approaches to support evidence-based policy-making for healthy eating.
The consortium has worked to translate insights from basic research into policy recommendations, says Menzies. In this context, we have integrated behavioural and observational studies with neurobiological data studies to help anchor and steer policy-making.