It Will Take More Than Information To Change Behaviour

Yesterday, I applauded the announcement by Canada’s leading beverage producers to clearly post calories on their products.

But I also warned that without educating Canadians on how to use this information, this ‘clarity on calories’ (as this initiative is called) may not quite produce the expected results.

So how effective are education campaigns on eating healthier and what are the key challenges in effecting actual behaviour change?

This question is addressed in a very readible treatise by Jeanne Goldberg and Sarah Sliwa from Tufts University, Boston, MA, published this month in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.

As the authors point out:

“Getting consumers to adopt a healthier diet has been a protracted undertaking with limited successes along the way. The obesity epidemic has added urgency to this discourse: not only do we need to eat better, but most of us also need to eat less.”

In this paper, the authors review some of the complex dynamics that have made the communication of accurate and actionable health behaviour information an ongoing challenge.

“The problem is that communication comes from multiple sources, often with different perspectives, different biases and different agendas. This communications web includes all levels of government, non-profit groups and advocacy organisations, the media, the food and beverage industries and consumers themselves. Each group has its own perspective on topics relevant to them.”

In fact, the complexity of providing actionable nutrition information is hampered by the interplay of four sets of factors:

  • the evolutionary nature of the science on which recommendations are based;
  • the many sources of communication about that science;
  • the agendas or motivations of each source;
  • the multifaceted nature of consumers, the recipients of these communications.

As the authors point out, communication alone has not been, and is unlikely to ever be, sufficient for consumers to adopt the behavioural changes endorsed by experts.

If we are to improve the diets of consumers, we will need to find creative ways to provide them with the intellectual tools they need to understand the most important elements of a healthful diet and the skills they need to purchase and prepare it. Communication alone will not affect behaviour change.

In addition, to effect behaviour change, efforts to help individuals hone their understanding of healthy nutrition and develop relevant skills need to be complemented by broad environmental interventions (clearly posting nutrition information on foods and beverages may be one example).

Thus, for e.g. educating consumers about the need to carefully household with their daily caloric allowance will only work if consumers can easily find and access this information. Conversely, simply providing nutrition information without also educating consumers on how to use this information to improve their diets will have little effect.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, “perhaps it is now time to launch a national campaign on caloric literacy“?

Freising, Germany

Goldberg JP, & Sliwa SA (2011). Communicating actionable nutrition messages: challenges and opportunities. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 70 (1), 26-37 PMID: 21208498