Can Psychology Research Make Us Healthier Eaters?

Healthy diet isn’t just a topic for doctors and medical researchers. There’s a psychological component to the question of why people maintain knowingly maintain unhealthy eating habits, and what might prompt people to switch to healthier foods.

A new paper from Christina Roberto, a health policy researcher at University of Pennsylvania, argues that findings from psychology have a key role to play in what we as a society can do to encourage healthy eating habits.

In the paper, titled How Psychological Insights Can Inform Food Policies to Address Unhealthy Eating Habits, Roberto mentions several potentially informative psychological findings.

These have to do with factors like how people prioritize emotions over reason and short-term rewards over long-term ones. Other relevant behavioral patterns have to do with how people tend to maintain the status quo of whatever dietary habits they find “normal,” and how people will opt for whatever foods are most visible – regardless of whether those foods are healthy.

In light of these psychological tendencies, Roberto makes the argument that “reversing the worldwide obesity epidemic will occur only if our food environments are changed in substantial ways.”

To put it another way, even if there are a number of behavioral patterns that predispose people to keeping unhealthy dietary habits against all reason, the right public policies might help tip the balance.

Some policies that Roberto proposes includes making sure all packaged foods have prominent nutrition-related labeling and restricting food marketing campaigns, in light of the fact that people tend to choose unhealthier foods purely on the basis of visibility.

Putting taxes on healthier foods and drinks is another policy that the paper suggests. It also raises the need to change which food options people see as the “default” – which is a pretty complex task to carry out, of course!

The idea that psychology research needs to be part of public health policy seems like a good one since psychological factors do seem to help drive people toward unhealthy foods. As far as the specific policy measures, those will no doubt spark some healthy (pun intended) debate. If you have any thoughts, feel free to leave them below!