hints may help nudge people toward making healthier food choices at the grocery
store, new findings suggest.
Obese people heading into a store who were given a
recipe flyer with a few health-related words spent less than one-third the
amount on unhealthy snacks as those given the same flyer with unrelated
wording, Dutch researchers found.
And the flyer had an effect even if people
weren't thinking about it as they shopped. Laboratory studies have shown such
"priming" with subtle messages can change behaviour, and the current
findings demonstrate that strategy can work in the real world, one of the
study's authors told Reuters Health.
"Subtle cues can have a strong impact
on our behaviour, without us noticing. Fortunately, this is true not only for
tempting food that surrounds us and makes self-control difficult – it also
works for subtle cues that remind us of our health and dieting goals,"
Esther K. Papies of Utrecht University in The Netherlands told Reuters Health
in an email.
Resisting food temptations
"Little diet reminders can make it much easier to resist food
temptations in stores, restaurants, and most likely also at home. "People
are "bombarded" everywhere with cues encouraging them to eat
unhealthy foods, Papies noted. "People are getting a lot of money to prime
us in this way," she added.
"These primes constantly activate the
short-term goal of enjoying tasty food." To see if health-focused cues
might help people make healthier choices, she and her colleagues designed two
versions of a recipe flyer. One included words such as "healthy" and
"good for your figure" and noted the calorie content of the dish; the
other had non-health-related wording such as, "try it out" and
"The researchers handed the flyers out to shoppers on
their way into a grocery store, and then looked at the shoppers' receipts to
see what they'd bought. Ninety-nine shoppers, including 42 overweight and obese
people and 57 normal-weight people, participated. Overweight participants who
received the health-prime flyer spent about $1.40 on unhealthy snacks,
including cookies, candy and chips, while those given the comparison flyer
spent about $4.80.
However, there was no difference in the amount of money
normal-weight people spent on those snacks based on which flyer they received,
the study team wrote in the International Journal of Obesity. Thirty of the
study participants said they paid no attention at all to the flyer, and there
was no association for these individuals between which flyer they received and
how much they spent on snacks.
But for overweight people who did pay some
attention when given the flyer, receiving the health prime reduced their snack spending
regardless of whether they reported thinking about the flyer as they shopped.
"The main issue is that the prime should be noticed, but it should not be
a threatening health message," Papies said – which is why phrases like
"a healthy weight" are helpful. Primes should not be
"patronising," she added, because that can make people feel as if
they're being told what to do.
"I would recommend nice-looking,
health-positive posters at critical points in the store, and these locations
could be varied, to prevent habituation; and for the shopper, I would recommend
such cues on the grocery list," she said. Ideally, she said, policies
would also help reduce junk-food primes by making those foods less available
and restricting advertising to children, for example.
"However, in the
meantime, consumers can protect themselves by implementing reminders of their
personal goals," Papies said. Such strategies include not buying junk food
to keep at home and packing a healthy lunch for work and school. "This is
exciting news indeed," John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale University in
New Haven, Connecticut, told Reuters Health. He studies how non-conscious and
automatic factors influence behaviour, but did not take part in the new
Although some cognitive psychologists have questioned whether primes
work to change behaviour in the real world, "the best response is to show
that these effects make a difference in people's lives," which the current
study does, Bargh said. "We definitely need more research showing real
world applications of priming such as this new Papies study," he said.