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Y. (Yu) Chen, MSc

PhD student

Previous studies demonstrate that healthy food choice (such as controlled-calorie intake) is the main determinant of preventing NCDs (e.g. diabetes and cancer). In contrast, unhealthy diets (such as those lacking fruits and vegetables) contribute to 40% of NCD-related deaths. Therefore, to reduce the heavy burden of NCDs, population-wide interventions for healthy food choices are needed.

To foster healthy food choices, a wide range of interventions have been proposed by the government, health organizations and etc. These interventions include hard and soft approaches. Hard approaches are legal regulation and economic measures (i.e. taxes and subsidies) mainly taken by the government, while soft approaches mostly involve health education and other behavioral interventions inducing individuals’ behavioral change on a voluntary basis. The rationale for implementing behavioral interventions is that individuals are not always rational in their decision-making due to several psychological biases, including present-biased preferences, status-quo bias, limited attention and etc, and thus incorporating these behavioral insights into policy-making is necessary. Also, World Health Organization (2022) claims that applying behavioral science to public health policy can improve the design of policies and programs, communications, and products and services aimed at achieving better health for all. Previous research argues that compared to hard approaches, soft approaches are more socially desirable for both governments and individuals due to low costs and a high degree of freedom. Therefore, in the past 10 years, more and more researchers have paid attention to exploring the impacts of different behavioral interventions on healthy food choices, including reminders, commitment devices, default options, goal setting, social comparison, and so on. 

Moreover, due to rapid economic development over the past four decades, China has experienced a dramatic shift from traditional dietary patterns to those which promote overnutrition and positive energy balance. What people eat now in China is high in fats, protein, sodium, and oils, but low in potassium and whole grains. Therefore, applying behavioral approaches to encourage healthy diets is necessary and will be highly advocated in China.

Despite a large number of recent studies on using behavioral interventions to promote healthy food choices, the efficacy of these measures remains uncertain and contains several limitations. Firstly, most studies concentrated in a few developed countries (e.g. United States, United Kingdom) and in some particular settings, such as schools, hospitals, university cafeterias, and restaurants, with most studies based on student populations. Yet, there are very few studies focusing on individuals’ daily eating behaviors, and more evidence is needed to improve generalizability; secondly, some scholars argue that behavioral interventions might only have short-term effects since previous studies rarely evaluate them in the long term. Therefore, more studies should be conducted to investigate if the impacts of different behavioral interventions diminish over a longer period of time (e.g. several weeks or months); thirdly, as previously mentioned, food choices are influenced by several psychological biases, and thus relying on a single behavioral intervention is unreasonable and unsustainable. In other words, combing two or more simple interventions to induce behavioral change should be carefully considered. For instance, Previous research demonstrated that the reminder containing social norms (i.e. stating that most peers actually consume a lot of fruits and vegetables) is more effective than the normal reminder (i.e. highlighting the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables) to promote higher vegetables and fruits’ consumptions. 

Motivated by the high disease burden caused by unhealthy diets and the limitations of previous behavioral research, I will develop several lab and field experiments to explore the impacts of different combinations of behavioral interventions on promoting healthy food choices during my PhD project. I collaborate with a research team from Guangdong Medical University (GDMU) of China that has obtained a grant from the Chinese provincial government. The grant funds all experiments I will undertake in China.  

Last modified:18 November 2022 09.42 a.m.