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The USDA Now Encouraging Consumer Psychology Tactics in Order to Eat Healthier

In the never-ending struggle of right versus wrong, the proverbial angel on our shoulders seems to be losing out to the devil. Case in point, although 90 percent of consumers said they knew that diet and exercise impacts their health, most still make fairly poor choices when it comes to the food they eat.

consumer food choices

What makes you choose which foods to eat? The USDA is trying to figure it out.

Americans are curious in that respect, pouring millions of dollars into diet books and weight-loss tools while simultaneously throwing money at junk food, fast food and soda pop that is sure to cancel out the effects of even the most motivating workout video.

Meanwhile, we insist that we know what healthy food is. We know that we should exercise and not watch so much TV. Yet, obesity rates continue to increase, as do a host of other nasty diet-related illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure.

It is quite a quandary, and one that researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) are trying to get to the bottom of. While economic factors, like food prices and income, dietary information and time preferences used to be regarded as the bigwigs when it comes to influencing what you buy, ERS researchers are now looking at it from a different perspective: from inside your head.

Could Consumer Psychology Make You Eat Better?

ERS researchers believe that consumer psychology holds the keys to why you buy ice cream instead of berries, or go to the grocery store planning to stock up on veggies for a nice, healthy stir-fry and leave with two frozen pizzas instead.

Clearly there is something else at play here, and ERS believes it has to do with consumer psychology. "Findings from behavioral and psychological studies indicate that people regularly behave in ways that contradict some basic economic assumptions," according to ERS.

Among the thousands of decisions you make each day, slight factors, such as whether or not you're stressed, distracted or tired, have a big impact on which road we travel. Meanwhile, because we process so much information each day, our brains make general judgment calls that spare us from having to analyze each decision (how long should I spend brushing my hair? Should I park in this parking spot or the one over there?).

Not surprisingly, our brains are not perfect nor are they predictable, and neither are all of our decisions. Consumer psychology takes into account some of the quirks that motivate our decisions, and attempts to translate them into tangible ideas.

Would These Methods Influence Your Eating Habits?

make healthy food choices

Consumer psychology is a complex field because people tend to make different choices depending on their mood (stressed? happy?), time preferences (how long do I have to decide?) and many other factors.

In the case of the ERS, they've come up with several methods that they believe may influence consumers to make healthier food choices. Among them:

  • Using prepaid "healthy cards" for food in grocery stores and schools. The consumer could choose which foods the card could buy (veggies, fruits) and which it could not (potato chips, candy), thereby eliminating impulse purchases, monitoring what your child buys at school and allowing you to pay a flat rate (which studies suggest consumers prefer).

  • Using online grocery shopping to pre-order your food. This forces you to commit to your food choices ahead of time and takes away impulse buying.

  • Smaller packages within a larger one. Putting pre-measured portions into small bags, inside a larger one, makes it easy for people to decide how much to eat.

  • More variety for healthy foods. People tend to eat more when there's a variety of food available -- bad if you're at a dessert bar, good if you're opting for a mixed veggie salad.

  • Make healthy foods the "default option." People tend to stick with the option that's the default, such as a hamburger and fries (rather than asking to switch the fries for a side salad). Changing the default option to a healthy choice (a hamburger and side salad) may encourage people to eat better.

Do You Want the USDA to Use Psychology to Tell You What to Eat?

Good intentions or not, the USDA's use of consumer psychology signals a larger trend that has been going on among retailers and grocery stores for years: using slick marketing tricks to get you to buy what they want you to.

In the case of ERS, the "product" is supposedly healthier foods. But in the rest of the world, consumer psychology is used to make you buy more ... junk food, clothing, cars, and just about anything else, just so you do buy it, regularly, and in large quantities.

"Every type of retail store has lures and tricks in place to get you to buy more, More, MORE than you ever intended to when you walked through its doors," says author Brian Vaszily in How Stores are Secretly Using Barry Manilow to Rob You.

Ultimately, the consumer does have the last word when it comes to choosing what to buy, and you can surely use this to your advantage by only choosing foods and other products that are good for your mind, body and well-being.

Recommended Reading

How Stores are Secretly Using Barry Manilow to Rob You

All the Health Risks of Processed Foods -- In Just a Few Quick, Convenient Bites


USDA's Amber Waves June 2007 June 12, 2007

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