Our environment – the space in which we live, work and play – plays a huge role in how we behave. Probably a lot more than we realise.
This has been shown in research about eating and physical activity. People walk and cycle more when there are good paths and bike lanes, for example. And there's a whole huge area of industry devoted to designing supermarkets to make us move through stores and buy in certain ways.
A new study has shown the power of this idea in helping people make healthier food choices. And it's reinforced what we instinctively know about humans: we are simple creatures.
The study was undertaken over two years in a large staff cafeteria in a Boston hospital. It looked at the food choices of more than 5000 employees, and how they were affected by two things: traffic-light labelling on foods and changes in how foods were displayed.
Both of these things, unsurprisingly, had an effect. People chose more of the healthier foods and fewer unhealthy foods with clear traffic light labels, and when the cafeteria was re-arranged to make the healthier foods more prominent.
The effect of this was that people consumed fewer calories; the researchers estimated this would mean a weight loss of up to 2kg per person over three years. That's not earth-shattering, but it is significant. Having a healthy set-up like this in a workplace – where after all, we spend a huge chunk of our time - could at least halt creeping weight gain over time.
The study also found the quality of people's diets improved, regardless of calorie intake. The largest reduction in foods purchased was seen in the unhealthy red-labelled items. That's a win for health: improving diet quality, even without weight change, has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic disease.
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The "choice architecture" aspect of the study was interesting. The researchers re-arranged the cafeteria to make green-labelled items more visible and convenient. The changes included rearranging fridges, chip racks and sandwiches to have the healthiest choices at eye level. They didn't change the foods offered – just how they were displayed.
Traffic light labelling is in use in other countries on packaged foods; the EU has had a voluntary traffic-light system since 2013. Food manufacturers hate it though; the food industry fought against traffic light labelling and won in NZ; we now have the voluntary Health Star Ratings system which, it could be argued, is not particularly effective. It's only on 20 per cent of foods and is prone to manipulation.
Choice architecture is something that could be investigated more though, I reckon. If a simple re-jig of displays in supermarkets, dairies or gas stations made it easier to mindlessly make a healthy choice, wouldn't that be great? I'm imagining checkout displays with nothing but fruit and healthy snacks; gas station counters with two-for-one deals on water instead of fizzy drinks. These outlets have the power to make a healthy choice an easy choice. They should do that much, much more.
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide www.healthyfood.com