/ Food & Drink

Will a better food environment promote healthy eating?

supermarket till

Is changing the UK’s ‘food environment’ the key to driving healthier eating? Our guest, Hugo Harper, from the Behavioural Insights team explains further…

Chapter two of the Childhood Obesity plan was published last month, and it takes an important step forward in recognising the importance of our environment for our eating behaviour and weight (PDF).

I mean ‘environment’ in the broadest sense of the word – the shops and streets around us, the information that’s presented on TV, online and in restaurants, and where products are located in stores.

Rather than telling people to make healthier food choices, we should be creating an environment that makes this as easy as possible. We know that giving information and informing consumers is not enough to substantially change food choices.

What is likely to be far more impactful are policies that remove unnecessary prompts to buy and eat unhealthy food from our environment. These restrict promotion of unhealthy foods, so that people aren’t challenged to resist temptation at every turn.

A better food environment

The feeling of slightly regretting eating too much chocolate when you bought them as a two for one deal is something many of us will have experienced.

The proposals to restrict advertising, location based promotions and multi-buy offers should make it that bit easier for people to make these healthier choices, without preventing them making a purchase when they genuinely want to.

Specifically on price promotions, it’s important to realise that not all promotions are created equal.

Even at the same level of discount, multi-buy offers increase purchases more than equivalent price reductions, such as when something is buy-one-get-one-free, people purchase more of it than if it was half price.


This increased purchasing means there’s more food in the house where it’s very easy to access. This can lead to unintended increases in consumption. Over-consuming can lead to weight gain and, overtime, to obesity. It may also increase waste.

The key is to understand the interaction between our psychology and our food environment. When food is readily available and plentiful we’re more likely to buy and eat it. So it’s likely that people will eat whatever they bought on multi-buy, and now have a surplus of, faster than they would have otherwise.

The hope would be to steer these types of promotions towards healthier food, but at the least this should encourage price offers that do not require the consumer to buy more food than they really want.

BOGOF vs discounts

A 50% discount is preferable to buy-one-get-one-free as it lets you make the choice about how much you want. The aim is certainly not to make shopping more expensive, but rather to give consumers greater freedom.

Public Health England’s analysis suggests that limiting price promotions will save us all money in the long run as it will help reduce unintended purchases.

A core part of the plan is catalysing reformulation by industry to make the food and drink we already eat healthier for us. This is the epitome of making things easier for the consumer as it doesn’t require any ongoing willpower.

For example, it would mean you could buy the same drink you did yesterday, but with less sugar. The plan would encourage industry to reformulate where possible while reducing the burden placed on individuals.

Will changing our food environment lead to healthier eating? Do you feel pressured into buying more junk food when it’s on offer?

This is a guest post by Hugo Harper. All views expressed are Hugo’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.


As the report by Public Health England says, people will eat more if presented with larger portions and it’s not difficult to see that a BOGOF offer could increase consumption. Multi-buy offers on foods is never a good idea because it can lead to waste. If manufacturers or retailers want to offer discounts they could easily half the price rather than offering two for the price of one.

In discussions about obesity there are usually comments about responsibility of parents and responsibility of schools. That’s not working very well, so perhaps it’s time to take action that will achieve more and recognise that no one approach is enough.

Trouble is that my unhealthy food is cheaper and advertised more.
Like my corner store has a plasma TV in each window advertising deals of junkfood, ready meals and fizzy drinks! The only healthy thing it shows is adverts for fruit and fesh bread

Seems to me that without attacking the amount of food and drink advertising there is little hope of a substantive change in the UK’s eating habits.

The fast food chains are known to try and capture their clients young and a ban on their advertising would probably bring the quickest rewards. There might also be a tweaking of tax on meals based not just on cost, as this favours cheap outlets, but perhaps a seating and a take-out tax.

I’m wondering whether mrs r and myself are derived from some alien species as we buy offers but don’t get fat. What’s gone wrong?

Perhaps we don’t strictly follow the rules as we shop at M&S. They rarely have 2 for 1 offers but they do have many other offers that we take advantage of when it is sensible (clue here?). I’ll bore you with the details so stop reading now if you have a low threshhold.

This week was typical. Offers we bought:
– Meal deal for £12 (£2 more this week as in included a bottle of Prosecco that we like). Comprised a very large chicken (roast in bag so no campylobacter), chips (we like them with eggs), large fresh raspberries. Saving – £13.60

– Indian/Chinese deal – 2 mains, 2 sides (instead of the normal 1) for £10. Saved £4. This was actually potentially beneficial also becasue it made 2 separate meals whereas we might have been tempted on the normal 3 component deal to have consumed both mains with the rice)

– 3 meals for £10 – Thai fishcakes, beef casserole and dumplings, chicken breasts/bacon/mushroom all for 2 people. Saved £2.50

– 2 bacon for £5. Saved £1. We wont eat any more, it’ll just last longer.

– 3 deli for £7 – large quiche, Feta cheese pastries, stuffed belle peppers.. Saved £2.10

– To wash it down, decent bottled ciders, 4 for 3 saving £2.50. We generally drink half a bottle between us at a meal, so these will simply last 33% longer.

If you’re still with me we bought decent quality food that made up all the meals we’ll need for a week. We won’t eat more than normal and we won’t waste any. Saved £25.70 – although these represent normal similar offers that carry on week on week so nothing special.

The point I make is that if you like particular foods and they are on offer they help a prudent shop, but don’t overfeed us. This seems to be about common sense shopping.

I might speculate that people who eat to excess may well choose the wrong foods, whether on offer or not, but I could well be wrong. I just don’t want sensible people to be penalised.

I agree with all that malcolm, we must also be aliens. 👽 👽

I make most of our curries from scratch these days with zero added sugars but occasionally get an Indian meal deal that goes in the freezer and the sides are my evening meal when I only want a small bite.

I disagree with multi-buys on food that must be eaten quickly or cannot go in the freezer like getting a discount on multi-buy large tubs of butter or spread. I always pay full price as I know the second one would go to waste.

But I make full use of discounts on food we eat that will definitely be consumed. Rather than get through it quicker, it saves having to shop so often.

I can’t remember the last time I went down the cakes, biscuits or sweets isle, we just don’t buy them. We do have a few packets of nuts and crisps, but they can be in the cupboard for weeks before they are opened.

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I posted a link on another Convo to a recipe book – a meal for £1 (in response to someone suggesting living on KitKats I think). The point is, by making the effort, you can cook sensible nutritious food for quite little money – cheaper than junk food. People who want help can be pointed in the right direction with a bit of information and then some education.

It is very obvious that there is not a simple relationship between food consumption, exercise and weight. I know a couple of people who have always been thin despite eating large meals. They are both very active but it’s clear that their metabolism is very inefficient compared with most people. There are ways of interfering with metabolism to make it less efficient but this has resulted in fatalities.

Inefficient? Perhaps they do a lot of thinking aswell as having brown fat?

” The human brain is responsible for roughly 20% of our total calories burned each day, which is pretty amazing when you think about it! To put this in perspective, if your total calorie burn for the day is 2000, then approximately 400 of those calories burned will be from brain activity. Research however, shows that this number can change, increase actually, when we challenge our brains to work harder.”

Yes, inefficient metabolism. That is related to the amount of brown fat (rich in mitochondria), which differs between individuals.

There are ways of interfering with metabolism to make it less efficient but this has resulted in fatalities.

I’m getting Deja Vu but I;m sure the UK armaments industry during WWII used a substance which caused a short circuiting of mitochondria in those who handled it, and a number of deaths were reported, mainly through over-heating.

That’s right. There are various uncouplers of oxidative phosphorylation, the best known being 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazine, which is the one you are referring to. For many years it was a useful laboratory chemical but now unscrupulous people sell it to unwary members of the public to promote weight loss and some lives are lost.

I’m trying to catch up with some old friends that I’ve not spoken to in the last year or two. In his fifties, he had taken up running ultra-marathons a couple of years ago. He complained that manufacturers had reduced the sugar content in their products.

From the government document on childhood obesity (link in Hugo’s introduction):

“Addressing childhood obesity will also reduce the huge financial costs that obesity places on us as a nation. It is estimated that obesity-related conditions are currently costing the NHS (and therefore every UK tax payer) £6.1 billion per year. The total costs to society of these conditions have been estimated at around £27 billion per year, with some estimates placing this figure much higher. As we celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS, tackling childhood obesity can help us secure the sustainability of this coveted institution for future generations.”

Even more important is the suffering due to the complications that can result from diabetes, including blindness and serious infections that can lead to amputations.

You are not aliens. Metabolism is controlled by the thyroid gland which is regulated by the pituitary in the brain (the manager) under instruction from the hypothalamus (the CEO) which varies according to age, gender heritage and diet, which can vary from person to person.

Log onto: https://www.obesityaction.org > the-role-of-your-thyroid-in-metabolism-and-weight-control

or, for a more detailed scientific analysis: https://www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov > articles-thyroid-hormone-regulation-of-metabolism

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Try this as a link to a pdf of the second article cited by Beryl: https://www.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/physrev.00030.2013. Some understanding of mammalian biochemistry will help it all make sense. 🙂

Thanks for the excellent link Wavechange, although familiar with some, it may take a day or two to digest all of it.

There are also 4 Hunger Hormones to consider, also controlled by the hypothalamus: Leptin, Ghrelin, Cortisol and Estrogen. Leptin, a satiety hormone, produced by fat cells, notifies the hypothalamus (brain) that there is enough fat in storage and prevents overeating. When things go wrong, Leptin resistance happens when impaired signalling doesn’t trigger the brain to calm hunger hormones, leading inexorably to obesity.

More on this: shape.com – 4 Ways To Outsmart Hunger Hormones.

Although I appreciate the importance of hormones and their role in regulation it’s not something I have studied in detail. Hormonal imbalances are undoubtedly important for some people with eating disorders and weight problems but in most cases I think it is probably environmental and psychological factors that are responsible for the rise in obesity in the past two decades or more.

Food that is ready to eat or ready-meals that just need to be put in the microwave or oven, more storage space in modern large kitchens and an endless variety of products in supermarkets all provide the opportunity to eat more. Our towns and cities offer plenty of opportunity to eat out whenever we want to and portions are often huge. Confectionery may no longer be on display near the till but it’s not far away and though individual bars may be smaller they are often sold in multi-packs.

It required government intervention to cut down smoking and I strongly support moves to tackle obesity, and the sooner the better. I question whether advertising of food is in the public interest.

I agree. It seems to me that the unhealthiest food is the most heavily advertised – understandably because it is the most profitable both for the manufacturer and the retailer. So turning this around, it would make sense to avoid all advertised food as by hypothesis [if not by definition] it is likely to be unhealthy.

I am very disappointed to notice when I occasionally visit the cereals aisle to see that so many standard products now have an added-chocolate variety in order to make them more appealing [and possibly addictive]. I don’t want state control of food but do feel there needs to be stronger guidance against unhealthy foods and support for parents trying to maintain healthy diets for their youngsters. I think the state does have a role to play in preventing obesity because it can have harmful effects on our physical condition as a nation for future generations and because of its impact on medical services, but also because of the economic and social impacts that could either actually increase poverty or delay its relief.

It’s most likely a combination of all three which emphasises the uniqueness in each and everyone and their association with environmental influences.

I agree advertising high carbohydrate and high saturated fat fast food needs curtailment and replaced with more healthy choices, never forgetting of course the calorie content in both alcoholic and sugar laden drinks. All TV channels also are now awash with food programmes and competitions which are not always im the public interest, especially for people trying to lose weight. I personally never watch them.

When it comes to eating out however, you are not obliged to eat the whole amount. It is well established that slow eaters will tend to eat less as it takes approximately 20 minutes for satiety to convey to you a feeling of fullness.

It does say something about a society that has an abundance of food on display in supermarkets, whilst food banks are still the norm in certain areas.

Perhaps it would help to look at other countries and cultures for inspiration. I spent some time in Japan in 1998 and was impressed by the small portions of beautifully presented food. Unfortunately, much of the advertising seemed to be pushing western lifestyle.

Food programmes are probably useful, at least the ones that show that it is not difficult to prepare simple nutritious meals and be aware of how much sugar, fat and salt goes into them.

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Duncan – I think that must be a “first world problem” hyped up for a slow news day.

I expect Cheltonian Bentley owners will be faced with no other choice than to food shop at Waitrose or M&S, but then I suspect that’s where usually go anyway. That said, I think their Bentley dealership is actually closer to Tesco.

…by the way, I know football is normally a taboo subject on here, but Radio 4 has just reported that France has just won the World Cup.

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It’s the BBC World Service, and I have started listening to it of late. Quite a good channel so far, based on limited exposure.

Football’s only a game partly determined by dodgy decisions from one person. Why people get so overexcited by it beats me. I hope GWR and Govia trains are now running normally.

duncan, what is more important is there is also a shortage of Bentleys; waiting times up to 18 months. So by that time Tesco in Cheltenham should have aubergines available.

Bentley dealerships will, of course, sell you a used car. I wonder if Tesco would sell you a used aubergine?

Thank you for the offer, Malcolm, but I am not sure you can put a Bentley in a ratatouille so I am afraid I shall have to decline it.

Although avocado was a popular bathroom colour in the 1970’s I have also seen houses that took the aubergine as their inspiration with a purple bath and lime green accessories. Nice.

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Did he also have a hand in the Austin Healey? Pity he didn’t stick to innovating car concepts

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