Simple, Small Changes Can Lead to Healthier Food Choices

Jan 21, 2014, 11:20 AM, Posted by Deborah Bae

At this time of year, many of us find ourselves trying hard to stick to that New Year’s resolution to eat healthier. Here is some good news: simple changes in our environment can have meaningful, sustained effects on our ability to make healthy food choices.

Committing to a healthier diet and trying to lose weight is hard, and many people believe they can do it as long as they have the right motivation and attitude. We’ll say things like, “I’m going to eat better” or “I’m going to eat fewer unhealthy foods.” But that commitment can be tough when people face a variety of unhealthy choices and just a few healthy ones. Or when it’s hard to tell which is which.

Researcher and physician Anne Thorndike and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital tested a novel idea: if all healthy food and drinks sold in the hospital cafeteria were labeled green, and all unhealthy items had red labels, would people make healthier choices?

The traffic-light labeling was complemented by choice architecture changes—putting the healthy items at eye level and placing bottles of water throughout the cafeteria—and tested over 24 months.

The results: at the end of two years, customers of the hospital cafeteria were buying 17 percent fewer red items and 12 percent more green items. The biggest change was seen with beverages: the proportion of red beverages sold decreased 35 percent and green beverage sales increased 15 percent from baseline to 24 months.

Employees who regularly used the cafeteria saw similar results—the intervention was effective despite the fact that they encountered these tweaks to the environment day in and day out for two years. These findings should be particularly interesting for employers looking to create effective wellness programs in their workplace.

This is the first study to show the long-term effects of food labeling and helps to answer the question of whether consumers develop “fatigue” for the labels and revert to unhealthy choices. In a way, the traffic-light labels are reminders and a form of accountability to help us make better decisions. If our environment makes the healthier choice the easier choice, we’re more likely to make it, time and time again.

Ultimately, eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight is about the cumulative small changes. Nudges like those in Thorndike’s study can help us all make such changes, and hopefully contribute to a healthier population overall.

Read more about the work we are doing to apply behavioral economics to perplexing problems in health and health care.