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When it comes to food messages, "do" is better than "don't"

New research suggests that people react better to positive rather than fear-based food messaging.

Have you noticed that much of the nutritional advice shoppers receive is fear-based and rooted in negative messages? According to new research from Nutrition Reviews, this actually renders it less effective in changing people’s food purchasing habits. Positive food messaging is much more effective than a focus on negative consequences. Humans like to be told what they are allowed to do, and are more offended when told what they cannot or should not do. When headlines warn us away from GMOs or gluten, as justified as they may be, these messages tell us what we can’t eat rather than what we can—and that’s a message people are more prone to shutting out.

The reasoning is simple: Gain-framed messages focus on the benefits of a particular health regimen and choosing certain foods, while fear-based approaches focus on the health detriments of other options. For example: An advertisement listing the negative effects of a name-brand product hopes to influence consumers to buy the healthier version, but it could drive away as many as it convinces.

The key to changing eating behaviors

“People repeat behaviors that they are either good at, or that make them feel good,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, nutritionist and certified natural chef in Boulder, CO. “This is certainly true for school subjects, work tasks, sports, and activities. Well, it’s true for eating, too. It’s a lot easier and feels better to be able to eat something rather than have to avoid it—and so that behavior gets repeated.”

This new review examined 43 different international studies that documented the effectiveness of different forms of health messaging. Across the 43 studies, campaigns that highlighted the benefits of particular foods were much more effective than those that highlighted the detrimental aspects of another product.

The studies suggest that most audiences are less invested in the subject matter than they are in the source of the message. Those less invested are more likely to respond to positive messaging rather than negative. In order for negative, fear-based messaging to be effective, the audience must already be more invested in the subject. Therefore, fear-based messaging works better for experts—like physicians and nutritionists—but not for the average consumer.

It’s interesting that many health campaigns are fear-based, while the research overwhelmingly supports gain-framed messaging.

Humans like to be told what to do, not what we shouldn’t do. When trying to tell your children or spouse what to eat, try encouraging them to eat a banana rather than telling them not to eat a bag of greasy potato chips. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Jun 26, 2015

This is so true. When it comes to eating, if you tell someone they can't eat something they focus on it more and really want it (ie the banana vs the potato chips). When I offer a person a cupcake I don't say it's vegan - that would be a form of denial, as in "what do I NOT get with this." I wait until they say "yum" and then I say they are vegan. The person stops for a second, and then continues to eat. If I first say they are vegan they often turn the cupcake down. It's best just to focus on "healthy" because most people want to be more healthy.

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