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What holds people back from adopting healthier eating habits?

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Healthy eating habits reduce long term health risks

We know that eating well will make us feel better today and help prevent health problems in the future - yet many people do not follow a healthy, nutritious diet. Unhealthy eating patterns are contributing to a growth in what are called ‘non-communicable diseases’. These chronic diseases such as obesity or diabetes are the result of a complex combination of internal and external factors and are a major public health concern for all nations. According to the World Health Organisation, obesity has trebled worldwide  in the last 45 years, in 2016 39% of adults were overweight and 13% were obese.

The higher chance of complications from Covid-19 on people with existing health conditions like diabetes and obesity was a stark reminder of the risks faced by these groups and the need to address the causes. The Mediterranean diet culture of Spain has been held up as a good example of a diet for sustaining long term good health. This diet, also found in Italy, France and Greece is high in fresh vegetables and fruit and unsaturated fats from olive oil, fish and nuts. But over the last 30 years, the wider availability of processed food has replaced traditional eating patterns and ingredients and obesity has been steadily increasing.  OECD figures show that 1 in 6 people are obese in Spain, and 1 in 3 children are overweight.

A personalised approach to healthier diets

This new consumer research from Euroconsumers' Spanish member OCU is a core part of the Preventomics project, a multi-country project discovering and testing how personalised digital nutrition tools could help people change their unhealthy habits and prevent longer term health problems.

The project brings together grocery retailers and manufacturers with specialists in health data, obesity, metabolism, diet, behavioural science and impact measurement from right across the health and nutrition sector. The Preventomics approach considers the complex layers of genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioural factors which impact on a person’s health and nutrition and how personalised technology might help.

As the lead consumer partner, OCU is ensuring that consumers’ real life experiences at home and in the supermarket are central to the development of these personalised nutrition tools. This is really important as any tools to help create successful and lasting change should start by diagnosing barriers to change from the individual perspective. 

What holds people back from adopting healthier eating habits?

OCU carried out research with 1,029 consumers in Spain, and weighted the results for gender, age, education level and location to find out what what holds people back from making healthy eating choices. They started by asking consumers what they felt was important in developing successful, sustainable personalised diet plans. Consumers ranked the re-education of eating habits as by far the most important factor in personal diet plans, over other factors like genetic testing to find the individual nutritional balance required, health apps that track food intake or exercise, expert advice or supermarket recommendations.

The problem is that while we know changing habits is important, it is not always easy to understand how to do it. In order to uncover more, the research delved deeper to discover their experiences and feelings about changing lifestyle habits like exercise, emotional well-being, sleep, eating better or stopping smoking. Not surprisingly, there were a few differences between different demographics, for example, while women found it harder to increase their exercise, they found it slightly easier to change their eating habits than men. When asked about general barriers to changing habits these came out top:

  • Lack of time: 27%     

  • Lack of motivation: 22%

  • Difficulty giving up certain pleasures: 15%

  • Health professionals’ messages are difficult to understand or don't fit people’s needs: 14%

  • Lack of information or knowledge: 10%

  • Laziness: The change involves too much expense: 5%

Eating better means giving up enjoyable treats

However, when people were asked about the specific barriers to healthier eating habits, some interesting insights emerged:

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Consumers did say that lack of time, lack of motivation and the expense of eating better were barriers to eating better but the biggest impediment by far was the sense that eating more healthily would mean having to give up or sacrifice the pleasure gained from less-than-healthy foods. This sense of forgoing something that brings pleasure was reported by 32% of respondents, whereas across most other categories it was well below 10%. The only other habit that was difficult to change because of the sense of sacrificing something enjoyable was smoking. Information and health messages about diets were not seen as major barriers to making changes, which may be due to advances in nutrition labelling and public health communications.

Design behavioural change strategies around consumers

This research shows how important it is to find out the consumer perspective in order to diagnose barriers to change  and design the best strategies to overcome them. This diagnosis showed that time, cost and motivation were important factors - perhaps suggesting that price based responses or time reduction measures would be helpful. However, behaviour change strategies and personalised tools should also explore how they can overcome people's aversion to losing a pleasurable treat. This will help the range of personalised diet tools that encourage healthier eating really deliver for consumers.

  • Survey details: The survey was carried out online with a panel of 1,029 consumers comprised 53% women and 47% men with ages between 25 and 74 years. The results were analysed taking into account gender, age, level of education and geographical distribution.

  • The Preventomics project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 818318. You can find out more here: https://preventomics.eu/

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