Shifting dietary habits: ‘Generic’ rather than ‘tailored’ health messaging works best, finds study

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/Mypurgatoryyears
Pic: GettyImages/Mypurgatoryyears

Related tags: Obesity

A new study has revealed that generic public health messages, such as ‘eat five fruit and vegetables a day’, are more effective at shifting dietary habits.

Amid rising obesity rates and a booming junk food industry, governments are under increased pressure to limit consumer intake of high fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS) foods.

Multiple strategies exist to discourage consumption of unhealthy foods, including product reformulation targets, sugar levies, and colour-coded food labelling – such as traffic light or Nutri-Score labels.

Yet less emphasis could well be placed on product reformulation and sugar taxes if governments were able to shift their populations’ dietary habits with public messaging.

So what kind of messaging works best when it comes to health? Do consumers respond better to generic public health messaging, or tailored guidance?

A new study by health economists from the Universities of Edinburgh, Bath, and Malta, has sought to find the answer.

Generic or tailored?

The study, published in European Economic Review​, investigated the impact of different public health information on dietary choices across a sample of 300 people from low income backgrounds.

The experiment allocated a budget to individuals. Participants then received either generic health information, very specific information individualised to them, or no information at all.

Tailored information included ‘easy-to-understand’ communication about participants’ risks of developing illness, such as diabetes or heart disease. This same group also received ‘easy-to-follow’ dietary recommendations to minimise risks.

Findings revealed that participants who received generic health information – as generic as ‘eat five fruit and vegetables a day’ – selected ‘healthier foods’. On average, these subjects selected food baskets containing approximately 20% less fat and saturated fat than the no information group, and spent 34% less on unhealthy items.

Interestingly, the study revealed no difference in the number of unhealthy items chosen, nor in the nutritional content of the baskets, of those that received tailored information compared to the no information group.

The study authors suspect that this outcome is linked to nuances in the tailored information, coupled with consumer expectation. Those that received such guidance actually got better news about their health than they may have predicted – meaning they may have felt less need to change their current dietary choices.

Policymakers should ‘bear these results in mind’

So how can these findings help inform obesity strategies? In the UK, the health economists said their findings should act as a warning about increasing trends towards individualising health information.

In fact, they suggest their findings may explain why strategies founded on offering personalised healthy information by public health agencies have not had the desired effects.

“Over recent years and in an effort to nudge us towards healthier behaviours there has been increased reliance on tailoring health information to make it very specific to individuals,” ​said one of the study authors, Dr Jonathan James, from the University of Bath’s Department of Economics. “This is premised on a theory that by individualising advice and guidance it will have more resonance with individuals and be harder to ignore.

“Yet, as our study shows, tailoring health information in this way is not a silver bullet in tackling obesity; it can actually be less effective at shifting behaviours than generic health information which is relevant to all.

“As we observed, this can be because the tailored information provided actually gives a better assessment of someone’s health than they may have imagined and therefore inadvertently gives them a free pass to continue to eat unhealthily.”

The University of Malta’s Dr Jonathan Spiteri, who co-authored the study, urged policymakers to consider more generic messaging strategies. “Policymakers designing responses to obesity need to bear these results in mind when considering future health interventions.

“Often keeping it general when it comes to public health messages will also make it more effective.”

Source:European Economic Review
‘Facilitating healthy dietary habits: An experiment with a low income population’
Published 20 August 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroecorev.2020.103550​ 
Authors: Michèle Belot, Jonathan James, and Jonathan Spiteri.

Related topics: Diet and health, Policy

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