Why do so few people eat healthy diets?

Most people do not meet national dietary guidelines. A UK national survey in 2001 showed how many people met each nutrition target but left out a crucial piece of information: how many met all the targets at once – i.e. ate a healthy diet? The answer was barely one percent.

Despite repeated surveys, researchers and policy-makers struggle to find the answers. Does income really matter? Is education more important? Or local food supplies – ‘food deserts’? Would extra cash make a difference?

The traditional approach sees individual behaviour as the problem and seeks to change it. But behaviour change depends on a sequence of changes: changes in information, of attitudes, in motivation, changes in skills and resources, access and availability, changes in social norms and cultural expectations. Purchases are strongly influenced by what is available, by price, by past experience and by marketing messages.

New research described in this Newsletter throws further light on what infuences behaviour. Parents, even on low incomes, know the basics of healthy eating but not always the detail. A TV in the bedroom undermines healthy eating patterns. Family meals help, but not a lot.

These findings show the complexity of dietary behaviour. Interventions which tackle only part of the problem will probably fail. Real change – at the level of agricultural policy, prices and marketing – is needed if we really want to help all people meet the healthy targets.

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