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Education and barriers to healthy eating

This months Healthy Eating Week, an annual campaign organized by British Nutrition Foundation was entirely focused on the importance of education. This seems a sensible strategy for improving the average UK diet as recent research we carried out demonstrated that education is indeed one of the levers that has the potential to make a positive change.

Our research identified some of the barriers consumers claim get in the way of eating a healthier diet. Overall 17% of UK consumers selected one or more of the statements that related to a lack of knowledge or skill when it comes to healthy eating. This equates to well over 10 million individuals who may stand to benefit from greater efforts in providing practical guidance on what healthy eating looks like in our world of ultra processed foods.  

Confidence in their own skills was understandably higher with younger consumers, something that the Healthy Eating week was specifically aiming to address with communication targeting schools – both teachers and pupils. However, 8% of 55+consumers found the evolving guidance around what healthy eating looks like a challenge to keep up with. At this end of the age spectrum guidance and communication should be focused on demonstrating how new discoveries around healthy diets relate to our prior understanding. The food pyramid served a great visual aid to understanding the role of different food groups, but new guidance may not sit well with a framework that 55+ consumers remember from their youth.  

While cost was the single most frequently cited barrier to eating healthily, it is likely that better education around scratch cooking, food storage, guidance on Best Before dates etc. may also help in this regard. However it is important to note that not all of this is about education as in the current economic climate genuine affordability issues are impacting on purchase behavior. Our research found a meaningful relationship between level of concern about overall financial security, impact felt from rising food prices AND the likelihood for cost to be selected as a barrier to eating more healthy. So while education plays a role, quality of school meals and healthier food bank provisions are another avenue to improve the diets at the population level. Our previous research has seen an increase in the number of people seeking help from food banks where provision of fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthier alternatives may make a meaningful difference.

However, many barriers to healthy eating exist outside the realm of education. A startling 50% of the population chose one or more of the statements that we classified as being about desire/emotional state triggering people to eat unhealthy foods. While genuine admission of addiction to junk foods impacts 'only' 8% of the population, a significant number of consumers grapple with issues to do with the uplift in mood and energy levels that can be a result of eating high sugar/high fat products. Linked with the addictive nature of unhealthy foods is the issue of exposure and access. 21% of surveyed consumers stated that so called ‘second hand exposure’ was a barrier for healthier eating. Access and exposure to unhealthy foods when socializing or shared in the workplace can create a challenge for some consumers to navigate. Such emotive issues were more prevalent among Female consumers, while Men were more likely to have developed a habitual taste for unhealthy foods over healthy alternatives.

Education plays a minor role in dealing with issues to do with desire, addiction and habit and instead legislation limiting advertising, in-store placement and promotions seems to be the route favored by the UK governments. With the dust yet to settle on many of such legislative moves (HFSS) it remains to be seen whether the carrot (positive reinforcement and education) or the stick (legislative action) is more effective in resolving as significant a challenge as this.  

Our survey also showed areas of improvement since 2021, such as a significant increase in number of consumers claiming to eat five or more pieces of fruit and vegetables each day as well as increasing number of consumers cutting back on sweet and savory snacks. Irrespective of how the reality of consumption stacks up against these claims, we firmly believe there are opportunities in the market for innovation around health in most food & drink categories. Initiatives such as Healthy Living Week along with continuing mainstream coverage of problems with Ultra Processed Foods, continue to, slowly but surely, create a better educated cohort of future consumers who are much more likely to take an active interest in the food they consume. For food & drink companies the key question is whether they want to lead or follow this long term trend…    

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Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

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