/ 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

Patrick Taylor says:
9 July 2018

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.


First of all Larry5 has a point people living in poor tough housing estates exist on what many think of as cheap junk food because its cheap to buy https://duckduckgo.com/l/?kh=-1&uddg=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.barnardos.org.uk%2Ffamilies_in_need_of_food_parcels_-_2013.pdf also http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Health/Healthy-Living/Food-Health > I have been in 10,s of 1000,s of poor homes fixing phones so I am speaking from actual experience . Second like malcolm I too am an “alien ” I dont get fat because my DNA says so – some people refuse to accept that because they think -eat a lot of food= getting fat. Not so in many cases. This herding people into just one group will never work no matter how much those pursuing that agenda jump up and down in anger because they refuse to recognize a NATURAL biological FACT – we are all DIFFERENT .


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.