When it comes to healthy eating, significant weight is unfailingly attributed to education. In order to improve people’s diets, we are frequently advised, we must educate the public about the healthiness of this product, or at least about the unhealthiness of that one.
However, such a prognosis appears to overestimate the importance of good intentions, according to a presentation by Radboud University’s Harm Veling at last week’s European Vegetable Strategies conference in Brussels.
“Around 50 per cent of people in Europe are overweight,” he said. “Why is this? Do people not care about their food choices? Or do they find it important but difficult to change their behaviour?”
According to studies, he said, a lot of people have strong intentions to eat more healthily but fail. “A good example is New Year’s resolutions,” he added. “But changing intentions and education often do not alter food choice.”
Veling said this could be explained in part by the stronger reaction of the brain’s reward areas to high-calorie food, particularly when a person is hungry. Vegetables simply don’t have the same impact, he said.
“There are conflicts within the brain,” he went on. “When people see energy-dense food, they immediately forget their goal to eat healthy.”
Environment would therefore seem all-important. By limiting advertising on junk food and increasing the availability of healthy choices, positive results would be instant, surely?
Not according to Veling, who pointed out the failure of numerous efforts to do just that. “Placing healthy foods near the checkout has been shown to have no impact,” he reported. Similarly, healthy canteens simply “encourage students to eat outside the canteen”.
Nevertheless, Veling did offer some hope of overcoming this issue. A computer-based study was having some impact on improving people’s choices and creating positive habits, he said, while simple reminders about one’s own healthy intentions can also prove effective.
“More attention needs to be paid to the automatic reactions of the brain,” he concluded. “For vegetables, the focus in promotions is far too strong on health and far too weak on taste.”