Let’s Have a Conversation about Food that Goes Beyond Restriction and Restraint—and Resonates with Real People

Oct 15, 2014, 9:00 AM

Sonya Grier, PhD, MBA, is an associate professor of marketing at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C., and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program (2003-2005).

Human Capital Blog: Congratulations on receiving the Thomas C. Kinnear award for your 2011 article in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing on food well-being! Please tell us about the award.

Sonya Grier: The award honors articles published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (JPP&M) that have made a significant contribution to the understanding of marketing and public policy issues. This year, eligible articles needed to have been published between 2010 and 2012. The marketing community was called upon to nominate articles for the award. JPP&M editorial review board members and associate editors then voted among the nominees.

Generously funded by Thomas C. Kinnear, his colleagues, friends and former students, and administered through the American Marketing Association  Foundation, the award’s purpose is to recognize authors who have produced particularly high-quality and impactful research in marketing and public policy.

HCB: How did your article do that?

Grier: Our research changes the conversation about food and health. We call for a departure from the prevailing paradigm driving research and recommendations for fighting our obesogenic society. That paradigm is that “food = nutrients = health.” But that is not how consumers see it. As we say in the article:  “No one sits down to eat a plate of nutrients. Rather, when we sit down for a meal, we are seeking physical as well as emotional and psychological nourishment: comfort, pleasure, love and community.” 

A marketing lens on health must prioritize how consumers see food, because any effective intervention has to fit within the way consumers see and live their lives. Our food well-being (FWB) framework shifts the discussion from an emphasis on restraint and restriction toward a more positive, holistic understanding of the role of food in a person’s overall well-being. Our article identifies and integrates key domains relevant to food that are central to understanding how marketing-related public policy can help to move people toward healthier, more sustainable food consumption.

HCB: How do you define FWB?

Grier: We define food well-being as “a positive psychological, physical, emotional and social relationship with food at both the individual and societal levels.” This definition is richer than the way we think of food, and emphasizes the multidimensional role that food plays in our lives. We identify five key domains that are encompassed in FWB: food socialization, food literacy, food marketing, food availability, and food policy.

The FWB framework highlights the need for research related to food to consider multiple disciplines and paradigms both within marketing (e.g. managerial, consumer, public policy) and outside of marketing (e.g. public health, psychology, sociology, etc.).  Each dimension of FWB incorporates a broad range of influences that together help us to better organize the complexity of food decisions and food’s ability to contribute to our social, psychological and physical well-being.

HCB: Why do you call for a shift to the food well-being concept?

Grier: The paper evolved from the “Food and Health” track of the first “Transformative Consumer Research (TCR)” conference. This is a dialogical conference; there were no presentations, just discussions over a two-day period about how to develop new research ideas. It was the first conference with this type of focus in the marketing and consumer research fields.

I was a co-chair of the track. Prior to the conference, we reviewed applications and selected a diverse group of 10 people to include in the track. Many didn’t know each other, and participants were conducting many different kinds of research (for example, managerial, consumer-oriented, and policy research) from different theoretical and methodological perspectives (including experimental, qualitative, economic, and other approaches). We also invited an “out-of-field” (that is, a non-marketing) participant, and that was Shiriki Kumanyika, PhD, MPH, a professor of epidemiology and my mentor in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program at the University of Pennsylvania.

So, we had all of these people in one room discussing the question: “How can we move the research on food and health forward, in a way that is transformative?” And through our discussions, it became clear that research and intervention approaches to health issues related to food consumption do not typically consider the multi-dimensional role of food in people’s lives.

The traditional emphasis on restriction and restraint focuses on what you shouldn't do. It's really a negative framing. And people like food! Most people do not see it as a negative. So we wanted to look at the role of food and health in the way that people do in their daily lives and frame it in a way that reflects how food contributes positively to peoples’ lives.

HCB: How can we make that shift as a country?

Grier: As a country, taking this positive approach toward food, and understanding how we can contribute to our well-being—as opposed to solely focusing on how it can be detrimental to our health—would help move the conversation forward for us all. The FWB framework identifies key areas at both the individual and societal levels. A focus on these factors, such as the way we socialize children about food, food literacy among the population, our food policies, and food marketing and availability, at the aggregate societal level will help us make the shift as a country.  I believe this can lead to healthier, more sustainable consumer lifestyles with regard to food.   

I already see the shift taking place in terms of the way people are talking about food. There have been conversations around these different dimensions of food, but now I'm seeing them linked together more frequently, and related to the notion of food as well-being, as opposed to just food as health.

HCB: How do you plan to spur the shift as a health researcher, and are you confident the shift will take place?

Grier: I continue research in this area and work to support the evolution of the concept in marketing, as well as in other disciplines. At the doctoral student/faculty consortium prior to the marketing and public policy conference three years ago, we held a workshop on food well-being. We had a group of doctoral students and junior faculty develop research proposals related to the food well-being concept, and then resident faculty provided commentary and assistance to further develop the proposals. In this way we are exposing new researchers to the concept and helping them develop relevant research.

In addition, subsequent to our Transformative Consumer Research track, other conference tracks at TCR Conferences have taken on the topic and extended it. There have been two additional research articles focused on the concept from these conferences. 

And finally, along with my co-chair from the conference and another colleague who was in a subsequent TCR group, we are in the process of publishing an article that integrates food well-being with social marketing, which is a key framework for designing health interventions. This will be published in a forthcoming “Handbook of Consumer Persuasion.”* This further helps to extend our thinking.

HCB: You were an RWJF Health & Society Scholar. What did you study during this period, and how has it influenced your current work?

Grier: I came into the program wanting to understand how marketing influences consumer behavior and health. My application to the program was built on a desire to understand how marketing—and by that, I mean the entirety of the marketing process, including the product, promotion, price, place and distribution— influences health.

That desire grew from my observation at the time that public health really seemed to emphasize advertising. But advertising is only one small part of marketing strategy and tactics and only one of the many ways in which the marketing system influences consumer attitudes, preferences, beliefs and actions.

At Penn, I worked primarily with Shiriki Kumanyika on issues related to obesity among African-Americans. A key outcome of this work was a systematic review in the American Journal of Public Health** that investigates the marketing environment that African-Americans face. There was such limited research on African-Americans that it was important to understand what they were exposed to as a result of aggregate marketing strategies. 

My subsequent research has evolved from this initial project, and seeks a more detailed understanding of the food marketing environment and how consumers respond to it, as well as what types of shifts might be needed to promote healthier eating and FWB among African-Americans in the context of the obesity epidemic.

In addition, the program really expanded and stretched my research. I came in primarily as a traditional experimental consumer researcher focused on target marketing. I aimed to understand the social-psychological processes underlying consumer responses with an emphasis on the role of cultural categories, especially those defined by ethnicity, age and gender. 

In the last 10 years I have expanded my research from a focus on individual consumer behavior to encompass the macro-societal dimensions of target marketing. In addition to examining consumers’ psychological processes, my research now also examines managerial strategies, public policy and ethical dimensions of target marketing. I look not only at obesity, but also other conditions such as breast cancer, and disparities in health more generally. The RWJF Health & Society Scholars program was a big part of the evolution of my research and the research topics I now undertake.


*Bublitz, M.G., L.G. Block and S.A. Grier. (Forthcoming),”Social Marketing to Advance Food Well-Being”, in Handbook of Persuasion and Social Marketing, Praeger Publishing, p. 39-76.

**Grier, S. A. and S.K. Kumanyika (2008), “The Context for Choice:  Health Implications of Targeted Food and Beverage Marketing to African-Americans,” American Journal of Public Health, 98:9 (September), 1616-1629.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.