N° 28 | January 2018

Understanding fruit and vegetable consumption from the psychology of personality

Fruit and vegetable (F&V) consumption is an essential component of a healthy diet that is linked to better physical and mental health. Given the importance of this healthy habit, it is crucial to understand what factors predict higher F&V consumption. The majority of research has focused on how demographic factors like female gender, high socioeconomic status and lower body mass index predict greater F&V consumption. Less is known about how psychological factors – namely, personality traits–influence F&V consumption.

Personality shapes food preference

There are five main personality traits recognised in psychology—neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. You have probably heard of neuroticism, characterised by negative emotionality and the tendency to perceive threats in the environment, and extraversion, characterised by positive emotionality and the tendency to be energised by the company of people.

Lesser known but equally important personality traits are openness to experience (the desire for novelty, complex abstract thinking, and aesthetic sensitivity), agreeableness (the tendency to be cooperative and altruistic), and conscientiousness (the tendency to be self-disciplined and organised). Given that personality shapes the perception, interpretation, and behaviour of people in their environments1, and food is a major part of our everyday environments, it seems likely that personality may shape food preferences, including the likelihood of consuming fruits and vegetables.

Personality affects the consumption of F&V

In my research, I have been investigating how personality is related to the likelihood of consuming more fruit and vegetables in young adults ages 18 to 25. Young adults are not known for reaching the minimum recommended 5+ a day of servings of fruits and vegetables; in fact, they are usually the age demographic least likely to eat fruits and vegetables2. Yet, even within this age range, some young adults are eating more F&V than others. The question is, can we predict those differences from their personality traits?

People open to experience: Number 1 eaters of fruits and vegetables

Yes, we can. Three out of the five personality traits predict higher FV consumption. The strongest finding is that young adults higher in openness to experience report higher daily F&V consumption than their less open peers. Openness is characterised by a desire for variety, a willingness to try new things, and higher intellect1 – characteristics that could promote a more varied and healthy diet including plant-foods. As a trait associated with exploration, openness may enable young adults to broaden their pallet, try new and unusual foods, and overcome taste aversions.

F&V consumption contributes to happiness and extraversion

The second strongest finding is that young adults higher in extraversion also eat more F&V than their less extraverted peers. This finding surprised us because there is no clear explanation for it. Extraversion is associated with a larger brain response to rewards, which might suggest this trait would predict higher consumption of rewarding sugary foods, but this is not what we found. One interpretation is that happier people eat healthier foods. Experimental evidence shows that inducing positive moods can shift people towards healthier food options3. However, more recent research shows that higher F&V consumption shifts people into happier moods4,5, so it is possible that the higher F&V intake contributes to feelings of happiness, which contributes to extraversion.

Being conscious increases F&V consumption

The third finding is that young adults higher in conscientiousness eat more fruits and vegetables than their less conscientious peers. This is not surprising given that conscientiousness is a marker of self-discipline. However, in our research, this effect is surprisingly weak— surprising because conscientiousness usually stands out as the single most important predictor of other healthy habits like exercising, wearing a seatbelt, wearing sunscreen, and getting regular health check-ups6. It is possible that self-discipline, while critical to a wider range of health behaviours, may not matter as much for plant-food consumption, which has more of a taste component.

Perspective: Understanding the personality traits to design more effective campaigns

So what does this all mean? From a health perspective, these findings suggest that personality traits are important in establishing healthy habits in early adulthood. These traits – notably openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness– could set the stage for better health now and later in life through increased F&V consumption. From a public health perspective, understanding the personality traits of people who do (or don’t) eat their fruits and vegetables could help institutions design more effective campaigns to increase F&V consumption. For example, public health campaigns could try to cultivate greater openness towards FV by encouraging people to explore novel foods and try new plant-foods through a “Try it!” campaign. Similar strategies could be employed by the fruit and vegetable industry to market their products.

Based on: Conner, T. S., Thompson, L. M., Knight, R., Flett, J. A. M., Richardson, A. C., & Brookie K. L. (2017). The role of personality traits in young adult fruit and vegetable
consumption. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 119. https://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00119 [open access]

  1. DeYoung, C. G. (2010). Personality neuroscience and the biology of traits. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 1165–1180.
  2. Krebs-Smith, S. M., Guenther, P. M., Subar, A. F., Kirkpatrick, S. I., & Dodd, K. W. (2010). Americans do not meet federal dietary recommendations. The Journal of Nutrition, 140, 1832-1838. doi:10.3945/jn.110.124826
  3. Gardner, M. P., Wansink, B., Kim, Y., & Park, S. (2014). Better moods for better eating? How mood influences food choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 320-335.
  4. Conner, T. S., Brookie, K. L., Carr, A. C., Mainvil, L. A., & Vissers, M. C. (2017). Let them eat fruit! The effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological wellbeing in young adults: A randomized controlled trial. PloS one, 12(2), e0171206. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171206
  5. Mujcic, R., & Oswald, A. J. (2016). Evolution of well-being and happiness after increases in consumption of fruit and vegetables. American Journal of Public Health, 106, 1504-1510. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303260
  6. Bogg, T., & Roberts, B. W. (2004). Conscientiousness and health-related behaviors: a meta-analysis of the leading behavioral contributors to mortality. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 887-919. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.6.887
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