New Year, New Me: three months in...

Many people start the new year with a mission to eat more healthily, but by the time we get to March, it can suddenly seem daunting and our efforts can start to wane. While the intention to continue this healthy behaviour is there, sometimes it can be so difficult, and you might find yourself breaking the 'rules' of your new diet and feeling like it was inevitable, but without being quite sure why. Well, it turns out our ‘food environment’ (i.e., how food is made available and marketed to us) is one of the biggest culprits causing us to slip up, and eventually give up, on our ambitious resolutions.

Recent research has highlighted four ways in which our food environment influences weight management. These are as follows:

  • Unhealthy food options have a strong appeal and presence in our environment. People trying to lose weight therefore have to avoid or plan around them.
  • Unhealthy food options are easily available and very accessible.
  • The perceived and real cost of healthier food choices is a barrier, particularly for low-income groups.
  • Social situations and many aspects of the current food environment are not a good combination for those trying to manage their weight.

Essentially, our environment is currently set up to make unhealthy food options seem more appealing and readily available, both of which make it hard to stick to healthier options and keep eating healthily.

Why are unhealthy foods so appealing?

Unhealthy foods are often marketed through their link to emotional enjoyment and ‘good times’ with others. National advertisements for well-known fast-food chains often show groups of friends ordering a takeaway and having fun, or families eating in the restaurant and connecting with one another shortly after having an argument. By depicting unhealthy food in such positive contexts, these advertisements are actually linking into key behavioural principles which influence our decision making and behaviours.

By showcasing these fast-food establishments as a place to spend and enjoy time with family and friends, marketers are establishing an emotional connection (affect – MINDSPACE [1]) with audiences, and present unhealthy foods as the more attractive (EAST [2]) choice, inevitably leading people to favour these options over healthier ones.

How are they readily available?

Unhealthy foods are not difficult to find, with a quarter of all food eateries in England being fast food. Interestingly, research has shown that there are actually five times more fast food outlets in some of the most deprived areas when compared to the most affluent, the effect of which is demonstrated by the fact that those living in more deprived areas are more likely to be obese. The EAST framework states that for someone to engage in a behaviour, it must be easy for them to do, and the fact that these foods are so much easier to find than healthier options, particularly in deprived areas, makes it harder for people to avoid them.

The fact that these options are easy to find is not the only thing making them readily available. Unhealthy foods are often of low cost and/or on offer, which acts as an incentive for people to choose these over healthier options. The MINDSPACE framework presents incentivisation as yet another key influence of behaviour.

For more information on understanding and using the EAST and MINDSPACE frameworks, check out our behavioural insights guide here!

What else impacts our behaviour?

The clever tricks of food establishments and their marketers are not the only thing going against people and their healthy eating behaviours. Our own psychology, capabilities and opportunities present a further barrier to us being able to avoid unhealthy options and keep to our healthier diets.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that we possess an innate need to seek out and take advantage of foods high in fat and sugar, a need which evolved when these foods were scarcely available and key for survival. This, however, does not reflect our modern-day environments, and so this innate need is no longer key for survival but incredibly problematic.

While we may have the motivation we need to stick to our health goals (COM-B [3]), we also need to ensure we have the necessary capabilities and opportunities (COM-B), which are unfortunately not always within our control. Being able to read and understand food labels and identify what falls under ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ is a further barrier to us sustaining healthier food behaviours (capability – the COM-B model), as are the perceived and actual higher cost of healthy options, which may not always be affordable to us (opportunity – the COM-B model).

For more information on using the COM-B model of behaviour to understand behaviour, check out our guide here!

In summary, there are barriers all around and within us making it difficult for anyone to stick to their diets and eat healthily. Even if someone has all of the capabilities, opportunities and motivation they need and can overcome our innate evolutionary needs, they then still have to battle against the marketers that make less healthy options so hard to resist.

What does this mean?

Put simply, our food environment needs a re-shift and a re-focus.

Those providing healthier food options need to be doing what unhealthier food providers are doing, but even better. They need to ensure healthier options are easy to obtain, whether that is making them highly available or at low cost. Labelling needs to be clearer to show exactly what is healthy and what is not. Finally, marketers need to establish the same emotional connection to create the association that healthier food also leads to enjoyment and good times with family and friends. Leaders and organisations in this sector all need to do their part to support people to make healthier choices and sustain their health goals in the long-term.

Curious about how you can contribute to this change? Check out how we can help you understand what your audience needs, and how you can campaign for change here!


References for behavioural frameworks

  1. MINDSPACE, Institute for Government and Cabinet Office [2010]
  2. EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. The Behavioural Insights Team [2015]
  3. Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. [2011]