If you’re trying to eat healthier, you may want to skip commercials.
You’re driving down the highway looking for somewhere to stop on the way to pick up dinner. You see a sign on the side of the road advertising a popular fast food restaurant, and you suddenly remember all those ads: slow-motion shots of juicy-looking cheeseburgers and crispy fries. In the back of your mind, you remember some warnings about the dangers of too much salt, or saturated fat in your diet, but those words seem so far away. You take the next exit and head to grab your fries.
Given the prevalence of advertisements for unhealthy food, this scenario is too common. But how much does the advertising actually negate messages about healthy eating? A recent study published in the journal Appetite found that advertisements of unhealthy food can negate much of the effect of health warnings, and healthy food information.
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The study, published by the University of Amsterdam, used two scientific approaches to see if health warnings shown before or after participants chose between two food options could affect their ability to make a healthier choice.
The results were not encouraging for anyone struggling to make change their eating habits: The presence of “food-related stimuli” (i.e. an ad) encouraged people to make unhealthy choices, even after learning that the choice was bad for them.
Aukje Verhoeven, lead author of the paper told Science Daily, “Health warnings often make people want to choose healthier food products, yet many still end up picking unhealthy food products. We suspected this might partly be due to the fact that people learn to associate specific cues in their environment with certain food choices.”
The study concluded that health warnings (such the dangers of saturated fat) can effectively change people’s food decisions, but only in the absence of images or videos promoting unhealthy foods.
The researchers suggested that consumers avoid logos and commercials whenever possible, specifically around vulnerable populations like children.
Alternatively, consumers can make a conscience effort to keep healthy foods front in center in their homes, creating positive associations with healthy options.
Verhoeven told Science Daily, “It is worthwhile exposing people to healthy food products together with certain environmental cues more often, for example by showing more adverts for healthy products. The environment could also be shaped such that healthy choices are the easiest to make, for instance by placing healthy products at the front in canteens or by replacing chocolate bars with apples and healthy snacks at the cash register. In this way, you give people a gentle push in the right direction.” One way to accomplish this at home is to leave healthy snacks out, and keep unhealthy options away.
Another easy step to take is to avoid watching too many commercials for restaurants or fast food, especially when you’re trying to change your eating habits. This may be a good time to just “Netflix and chill.” We have the ability to make healthy decisions, but it’s much more difficult when the cues around us encourage otherwise.