Martijn Veltkamp is a psychologist and researcher at FrieslandCampina. He gives tips about how we can smartly capitalise on eating habits in order to change the eating behaviour of people.
The world population is expected to have grown to over 9 billion people by the year 2050 (1). This growth will be accompanied by an increasing impact on the environment and demand for food. Consequently, the burden that our food pattern lays on the environment becomes more and more important. The government aims to increase the sustainability of consumers’ food intake by consuming less meat and more plant-based products (2). Eventually however, consumers themselves are key for these changes, as they are the ones that have to adjust their behaviour and make more sustainable choices (3). Therefore the question is to what extent consumers are prepared and able to adjust their food pattern towards a more plant-based diet.
Change is difficult
Reseach has shown that it is difficult for people to change their nutritional habits. For example, the Dutch Food Consumption Survey shows time and time again that people eat less vegetables and fruit than recommended (4), and the same pattern is found for most other countries (5). A recent study compared how difficult it is for people to change their current food pattern. For this study one group of people was asked to eat in accordance to the standard nutritional recommendations whilst another group was asked to follow a plant-based, more sustainable diet. Results showed that people find it hard to follow a food pattern that is completely plant-based, and that they are also less motivated to adjust their food pattern for the long term in comparison to the group that followed the standard nutritional recommendations (6). What is the reason for this?
Creatures of habit
In order to change eating habits, people have to be consciously committed to this. However, our brains have two systems for taking decisions, also with respect to food. One system is fast, nonconscious and driven by emotions and habits, whereas the other is slow, conscious and more rational (7). We mostly take food-related decisions quickly and therefore based on the nonconscious system. Usually, our nutritional choices are strongly determined by how much we like something (product taste) and by our habits. In many western countries consumers have strong eating habits in particular with respect to breakfast and lunch, for instance consuming bread and dairy products (6). These habits are hard to change (8,9). If we want to change the eating behaviour of people, we will have to take taste preferences and habits of the persons concerned into account.
Another reason why changing the existing average food pattern into a fully plant-based diet is hard for people has to do with the great difference between the two food patterns. Completely replacing meat, fish and dairy by other products means the consumer has to implement substantial eating behaviour changes. This is, except for highly motivated people, often too much to ask. Studies have shown that a minor difference in the present behaviour or food pattern will work positively to motivate people as compared to major differences (10,11). Substantial shifts in required behaviour are often less successful and increase the likelihood of consumers’ becoming demotivated (11,12).
If we want to make consumers implement changes towards a more sustainable food pattern, it is important to realise that this is more likely to succeed when sustainable choices are also easy and tasty choices. Three tips:
- As breakfast and lunch are highly habit-driven eating moments, it is better to recommend more sustainable or healthier variants within the range of products that people already eat (e.g. replace white bread by brown bread or regular by organic milk), rather than adjust the entire meal. As for the other eating moments we can go a bit further.
- Taste is most important for the consumer, so propose products that this specific consumer likes.
- A consumer must think that he/she is able and can stay motivated to change his/her diet. Therefore try to accomplish this in small steps towards a more sustainable and healthy eating pattern instead of implementing an ‘ideal’ food pattern in one step.
- Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations [FAO] (2009). How to feed the world in 2050. Rome: High-level Expert Forum.
- Health Council. Guidelines for a Healthy Diet; the ecological perspective. The Hague: Health Council, 2011; publication no. 2011/08
- Asscheman-Witzel, J. (2015). Consumer perception and trends about health and sustainability: Trade-offs and synergies of two pivotal issues. Current Opinions in Food Science, 3, 6-10.
- Rossum CTM, Buurma-Rethans EJM, Venneman FBV, Beukers M, Brants HAM, de Boer EJ, Ocké MC (2016). The diet of the Dutch: Results of the first two years of the Dutch National Food Consumption Survey 2012-2016. Bilthoven: National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.
- Lock, K., Pomerleau, J., Causer, L., & McKee, M. (2004). Low fruit and vegetable consumption. In M. Ezzati et al. (eds.): Comparative quantification of health risks: global and regional burden of disease due to selected major risk factors. Geneva: World Health Organisation.
- Veltkamp, M., Anschutz, D.J., Kremers, S.P.J. and Holland, R.W. (2016). Comparison of food recommendations varying in sustainability: Impact on dietary intake and motivation to follow recommendations. Under review.
- Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking: Fast and Slow. Penguin books.
- Riet, J. van’t, Sijtsema, S. J., Dagevos, H. and De Bruijn, G. J. (2011). The importance of habits in eating behaviour: An overview and recommendations for future research. Appetite, 57, 585-596.
- Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M. and Kurlander, D. (2011). The pull of the past: When do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1428-1437.
- Cullen, K.W., Baranowski, T., and Smith, S.P. (2001). Using goal setting as a strategy for dietary behaviour change. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 101, 562-566.
- Locke, E. A. and Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year Odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705-717.
- Baron, R.A., Mueller, B.A. and Wolfe, M.T. (2016). Self-efficacy and entrepreneurs’ adoption of unattainable goals: The restraining effects of self-control. Journal of Business Venturing, 31, 55-71.