Creating healthy eating habits needs a series of nudges, and a great big push

Creating healthy eating habits needs a series of nudges, and a great big push

There is little doubt that modern diets place a major burden on our health. We consume too many calories, with too much of the wrong sort of food and not enough of the right sort. And the cost of tackling obesity is set to rise further, with the Chief Executive of NHS England warning since 2014 to “get serious about obesity or bankrupt the NHS”.

Government and the food industry have seen a need to respond. The UK government has announced a sugar levy; retailers and suppliers are working to reduce sugar, salt and fat in thousands of products, and customers can see more and more information on food labels. Tesco’s “Little Helps Plan”, published yesterday, outlines some of the most recent initiatives.

The problem is that a big part of why we eat unhealthily is down to habit. This is built up over years, reinforced by social norms, and by the influence that brands, retailers and restaurants have on purchase decisions: changing it will be very difficult and will take time. After 20 years of policy efforts, it’s clear that “more information” (or even a few pence off price) often won’t be up to the job.

Behavioural economics offers a new way forward. It can shed light on the unconscious processes that create and reinforce the unhealthy habits we see today. This would start with a clearer diagnosis of why people eat what they do (not just how they shop), how people’s eating habits differ, and a focus on the distinct behaviour changes needed to break bad habits and start new healthy ones. And in doing so could open up a suite of behavioural “nudges” towards a healthier lifestyle.

In another sector, we have seen how a deeper understanding of unconscious behavioural drivers has helped financial services regulators and banks move beyond policy based on “rational customers” and begin to dig into the real reasons why customers behave as they do. And that is starting to lead to more imaginative responses to perceived problems that go beyond a lengthy “key facts” document, or a tweak to price.

If banks can understand how their customers behave, there is no reason why sophisticated retailers and FMCG companies cannot do the same. Some examples of the questions raised when applying a behavioural lens then include:

  • How can healthy products be positioned to be more appealing and more rewarding? Customers are trained to think of unhealthy food as “treats”, but too many messages about healthy products tell customers what they get less of (“less salt”, “less sugar”). Can we break the negative associations? For example, rather than a simple ‘Healthy lasagne’, how about a ‘Tuscan Farmhouse Lasagne with roasted aubergine and Sicilian peppers’?
  • Can we break habits by making it easier to shop healthily? For example, what if there was a single click option to fill an online basket with “the best seasonal fruit and vegetables this week”? Or an easy way to see if your basket this time is healthier than last week’s?
  • Whose behaviour should we start with? It will be hard work to change the eating habits of forty year old parents. But might they be more motivated (and find it easier) to help shape the habits of their children? And since – psychologically speaking – it’s different breaking a bad habit from starting a new good one, we’re going to need different tools to stop unhealthy activity and to start something else better.
  • Do we need a new social norm? To create lasting behavioural change, we need to nudge customers into a new normal. If we want children to eat an apple rather than a bar of chocolate, that will require changes to social norms at home and in school – changing consumption patterns long after customers have left a shop.

These ideas are just the starting point. But we can expect a growing focus from the food industry, policy makers and charity stakeholders on these real behavioural drivers. And with no one party able to change habits on their own, there remains a need for an imaginative and coordinated response from government, suppliers, retailers – and consumers themselves.

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