Getting the message

There are campaigns out there targeting nutrition-related areas for change, particularly around obesity. Many of these campaigns use health information very specific to individuals. This, according to Dr Jonathan James from the Department of Economics at the University of Bath, is premised on a theory that by individualising advice and guidance it will have more resonance with individuals and be harder to ignore.

Is this specific approach the one we should be taking to create a healthier change?

Apparently not.

A new health economics study warns that health information which offers specific advice tailored to individuals can often backfire.

Generic public health messages, such as ‘eat 5 fruit and vegetables a day’, are more effective at shifting dietary habits than very specific advice and guidance tailored according to individual needs, say researchers.

In the new study from health economists, published in the journal European Economic Review, researchers tested the impact of different public health information on dietary choices across a sample of 300 people from low income backgrounds.

In their experiment, which allocated a budget to individuals and asked them to select items in a shopping basket, participants either received very specific information individualised to them, received generic health information, or received no information at all.

For those provided tailored information, they were given easy-to-understand information about their risks of developing diabetes or heart disease, as well as easy-to-follow dietary and health recommendations to minimise risks.

Teams from the universities of Bath and Edinburgh, with international colleagues at the University of Malta, found that participants who received generic health information selected food baskets that, on average, contained less total fat and less saturated fat (approximately 20% less) relative to the no information group, and spent 34% less on unhealthy items.

For those receiving tailored information, they found no difference in the number of unhealthy items chosen, nor in the nutritional content of the basket compared to the no information group.

The authors say this is because the majority of those who received tailored information actually got better news about their own health than they might have otherwise imagined. This meant individualised information did not have an effect in the sense that participants were given a ‘free pass’ to continue with their current (unhealthy) dietary choices.

At a time when obesity is front and centre of government thinking, these findings should give the UK government and its advisors food for thought.

It is, as the researchers point out, a “warning about increasing trends towards individualising health information”.

Maybe a carrot and stick approach is what’s required to turn the tide, with incentives? It could even be about reigniting the joy of home cooking with a campaign encouraging people to cook more for themselves.

Whatever the message needs to be…being general seems to be the most effective approach.

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