Can we nudge populations’ diets?

The Paper of the Month for May is from Proceedings of the Nutrition Societyentitled “A nudge in the right direction: the role of food choice architecture in changing populations’ diets” by H Ensaff. The paper will be free to access for one month. 

The challenges in improving nations’ diets persist. As we try to overcome these, an area that is gaining traction is nudging. But can nudge-based interventions change food choice, and enable better decisions when it comes to choosing what to eat? And actually, how effective are they in real-world settings? 

This paper sought to answer these questions by reviewing the relevant theoretical background to food choice and nudges, the evidence on nudge-based interventions and their effectiveness, as well as their design and implementation. One of the key

aspects considered was what we already know about choice architecture, and how a choice is presented and the subsequent effect on decision making. When thinking specifically about food decisions, this relates to all aspects of how a food choice is framed, for example how food is presented, its accessibility and availability, and the use of prompts such as, “Would you like a pastry with your coffee?” The prevailing choice architecture can promote the choice of certain foods and discourage others. It is on this basis that nudge-based interventions are developed, i.e. the food choice architecture is altered to influence food decisions.  

Nudges to change food choice have been investigated in laboratories, online and in real-world settings, and the evidence on their effectiveness is encouraging. Indeed, momentum is building behind nutrition interventions based on nudge strategies and the value that these bring. Internationally, there is research and policy interest in exploring how nudging may be part of the answer as we try to improve populations’ diets.  

The substantial contribution that nudging could make to improving diets can be attributed to four main reasons: first, nudges can be effective in shifting choice and so differences in diet are plausible; second, they are typically low cost; third, nudging lends itself to small changes in individuals, which on a population basis can be substantial; fourth, nudging entails small subtle changes that don’t look to change or restrict what foods are available, and so this is potentially more attractive to catering and retail sectors.  

The review also pointed to what we might see in the future, including further research with different and diverse populations, a greater understanding of the theoretical background and also more work with multiple nudges. The importance and need for guidance and tools when it came to implementing nudges in the real-world were also highlighted. These would help and encourage stakeholders across the breadth of food provision (e.g. schools, workplaces, restaurants) to implement purposeful choice architecture, and in effect: make the better choice the easier choice.  

This work contributes to our understanding of how the clear and distinct potential of nudge-based interventions might be realised. This is crucial as we endeavour to improve the food choices people make, so that we can try to make a meaningful difference in populations’ diets.  

Interested in Behaviour change and food?

Why not register for this on demand webinar which considers different theories and strategies of behaviour change as well as impact and unintended consequences, with the aim of providing a realistic but pragmatic view of behaviour change and the food/drink environment. View Here