Friends of the Behavioral Economics Blog, this week we present the paper “Healthy Nutrition and Behavioral Economics: From Principle to Practice”, by Yasenok, V. O.; Smiianov, Y. V.; Pidmurniak, O. O.; Kravchuk, L. S. and Hornostaieva, P. O. (2022), in which authors talk about a few studies carried out by them where it is observed how different theories of behavioral economics can be applied effectively when it comes about achieving a healthy nutrition. 

Healthy nutrition provides proper growth and development to all living beings, contributing to the strengthening of health and disease prevention.

According to WHO, it is necessary to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and nuts in the diet. It is also necessary to limit the consumption of processed meats, red meat, sugary drinks and, in general, products with a lot of added sugar, salt or alcohol. 

Poor nutritional quality can deteriorate health and make us develop certain pathologies. 

What we fail to understand is how, when information on good nutrition is available, the incidence of associated diseases continues to increase. 

Traditional economic analysis cannot explain why many people choose risky behaviors that can harm their health. For this reason, more and more scientists around the world are focusing on behavioral economics, which tries to explain why people behave irrationally. 

In the book “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein, the idea appears that understanding how people make decisions can be used to encourage them to make the right decisions, without limiting freedom of choice.

Authors discuss, in an attempt to provide new insights, some interesting data they obtained from a study conducted with students at Sumy University. 

First, it is important to understand that environmental factors such as the social environment, the presence and level of distractions, and even lighting, can affect people’s food choices. Therefore, some of these factors can consequently be used to “nudge” people toward rational choices. 

For example, low-nutrient fatty products are currently widely available, inexpensive, and sold in large quantities. This makes people opt more often for them, even if they are trying to maintain a good diet. It is also important to consider the fact that people tend to be overly optimistic about their health in the future, constantly postponing the abandonment of negative eating habits, leaving them “for tomorrow”. 

Most decisions about nutrition are made primarily by the automatic system. The processing of information about the caloric content of food, based on a large amount of numerical data, requires certain efforts on the part of the person to understand them.

Authors propose a color labeling system that they call the “traffic light method”, with a small green label for the healthiest foods, a yellow or orange label for those of medium level and a red label for foods that are higher in calories and, in general, less healthy. This makes it much easier for people to know which are the healthiest choices. 

There is also the “half plate method” that some people find very visual. It consists of imagining a plate and filling half of it with “green foods”, such as fruits and vegetables, and always taking it as a reference for meals. 

In an experiment conducted by the same authors in 2020, it was shown that placing healthy foods at eye level in a high school cafeteria, together with the color-coded labeling method, contributed to an increase in their consumption. 

Behavioral interventions in the food environment should be at the heart of health policy to help improve people’s nutritional behavior and play a major role in disease prevention. 

In addition, behavioral science, and in particular behavioral economics, is again shown to be very useful in shedding light on important factors that contribute to the emergence of major public health problems. 

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