How our behaviour can motivate us to eat for health

Behavioural economics expert Dr Craig Nossel is the CEO of Carenomics, a behavioural economics consultancy. Previously he was the Head of Vitality Wellness, one of the largest global wellness businesses.

In this article, Dr Nossel provides an insight into how we can use our behaviour to influence healthy eating.

Present vs. future selves

When our daily routines are interrupted and we become confined to our homes, like our shared experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, or following injury, illness or even bringing a new baby home, we are exposed to the health challenge of an ‘obesogenic environment’. Or in other words, an environment with the key factors that lead to obesity. 

Depending on the intensity of the situation, in these scenarios we often don’t act in the best interest of our future selves by doing things that better support our long-term health.

So how can behavioural economics help shift this?

Behavioral economics

Behavioral economics is a field of scientific study which suggests our decision making is influenced or driven by emotion, intuition, and other behavioral patterns.

However, as patterns can be identified, and show some consistency, they provide new opportunities for subtle interventions that can shift our behaviour towards more desirable outcomes.

This is where the idea of nudging was born. This can mean simple and subtle ways that we can influence decisions without banning or making rules. For example, in a vending machine, putting the refreshing water at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning soft drink does not. Put simply, this means that we can protect ourselves from ourselves!

Nudging for nutrition

When it comes to choosing healthy and nutritious food, here are three behavioural nudges you can try when at home to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

1. Physical food distancing

When food is readily available and right in front of us, we tend to consume it mindlessly without realising how much we are eating. By applying physical food distancing when we’re at home we can avoid this extra consumption. Apply the principle “out of sight, out of mind”, the more hurdles that we need to overcome to eat the food, the less likely we are to do it.

  • Place your healthy food items at eye level in the fridge or cupboard.
  • Keep your “sometimes food” out of sight or even better, try not to regularly purchase it.
  • Break up big bags of treats into smaller containers to control portion sizes and place snacks onto a plate and return the remainder to the cupboard or fridge.

2. Meal planning

Planning your meals ahead of time is key to staying on track and maintaining a healthy diet. It can help save you money too. Most of us have good intentions when shopping, but emotional cues can get the better of us, especially if we are hungry at the time.

  • Have a list of ingredients and items that you need to reduce the chance of being enticed into buying items that you want.
  • Try not to food shop when you are hungry.
  • Plan your meals for the week and stick to it, use interesting recipes and prepare food ahead of time for those busy days.

3. Educate yourself

Learning cooking skills and discovering new recipes can help to enhance our overall health and wellbeing. Learning to cook your own meals has several advantages:

  • You will gain a greater appreciation of the food you consume.
  • You are more likely to eat healthier when you cook the food yourself.
  • There is a sense of achievement that comes with cooking your own meal.

Healthy, great-tasting recipes, low in excess salt and sugar, can easily be found with a quick Google or on reputable websites like Live Lighter and Jean Hailes. And by involving other members of your household, and then sitting down to eat together, you can create very valuable social connections.

Applying these behavioral strategies at home can help you to maintain your healthy eating goals. And remember, it’s OK to also ask for help from your GP or a health professional such as a dietitian or nutritionist.