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Behavioral Economics and Healthy Eating. A Fascinating Combo.

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  February 4, 2012 02:11 PM

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Photo: Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
While the term “behavioral economics” doesn’t sound very appetizing, when applied strategically, it can have individuals, even kids, chowing down more healthy foods, such as fruits and veggies.   Now, that’s rather delicious. 

Behavioral economics is the meeting of two models: 1) behavior models in psychology, coupled with 2) the decision making models in economics, according to Cornell University researchers Brian Wansink, Ph.D. and David Just, Ph.D.   It highlights how your present biases in the perception, memory, or thoughts, in this case, about the consumption of produce, may influence your decision or choice to consume them.  Researchers are now using behavioral economics to make low cost, subtle changes in the display and location of healthier foods in school cafeterias, which have been shown to increase the consumption of these healthier foods. 

For example, a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) uncovered that when it comes to getting kids to eat veggies at school, a picture may speak louder than words.   Researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered that putting pictures of carrots and green beans on each cafeteria tray in the lunchroom of a local elementary school (see above), changed the behavior of the kiddies and increased the likelihood that they would choose to put these veggies on their trays.   Consequently, the researchers found an overall significant increase in the veggies consumption among the group when they were given the tray with the pictures compared to another day when carrots and green beans were served but there weren’t any “picture reminders” on the cafeteria tray.   This is behavioral economics in action.

This isn’t the first study using behavioral economics.  Wansink and Just have conducted numerous studies in school lunchrooms with fascinating results.  Their research has shown that simply relocating healthy foods on the cafeteria line can increase their selections.  As any good real estate salesperson will tell you, when it comes to selling, it’s all about location, location, location:

In addition to switching the location of fruit, Wansink and Just also uncovered that by giving carrots a “cool” name, kids were more apt to not only pile them on their plates but also eat them:

For more about behavioral economics in the lunchroom, please visit

On the home front, you may want to find a decorative bowl, fill it with bright red apples or oranges, and make it the new centerpiece for your kitchen table.  When it comes to healthy eating, think "location, location, location."

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Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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