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Promoting healthy eating at work with choice architecture

This one is about food, personal wellbeing and organizational productivity. And the nudges that tie it all together.

Our story starts in New York. Ever been onsite Google offices or got a sneak peek to their campus? It’s a foodie paradise!

Promoting healthy eating at Google

By 2008, weight gain was becoming a concern among some Googlers who enjoyed the free food on campus. Jessica Wisdom, an inhouse behavioral scientist and people analytics manager, decided to run an experiment in the New York office: With her team, they placed soft drinks and chocolates behind opaque glass (essentially out of sight) and put water, fruit, nuts and other healthy snacks behind clear glass, at eye level. They tested this for 7 weeks and measured the results. Over this period, employees in the New York office consumed 3 million fewer calories from M&Ms and drank 50% more water!

Ever since, thousands of companies worldwide mimicked similar nudges to encourage employees towards healthier food behavior at work. Simple and low-cost, these nudges carry a huge upside in terms of employee health, motivation, overall productivity and organizational success. Examples of nudges for promoting healthier eating at work cafeterias include changes to product offerings, placement, price, and promotion such as: offering more healthy food options and combo deals for them

  • making healthier opinions more visible in promotions, displays, and menus

  • putting healthier opinions at the beginning of the service route.

What are nudges?
A nudge is a tool in the arsenal of behavioral scientists. It takes the form of an intervention that structures choices (choice architecture) in a way that promotes certain behavior without violating autonomy or relying on communication to change attitudes in hopes of affecting behavior.
According to Thaler and Sunstein who coined the term:
“To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. 
Nudges are not mandates. 
Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. 
Banning junk food does not.”

How can nudges work for companies?

Unconscious and intuitive decision making can be leveraged to support organizational goals like productivity via employee health and wellbeing. Organizations can use small changes to encourage healthy eating in the workplace environment. Whereas more traditional communication strategies aim to change the attitudes and beliefs that drive behavior, nudging focuses on intuitive processing. That is, where people aren’t actively processing information in a rational way. This approach is especially useful when people’s attitudes are already aligned with the desired outcome, but their unconscious decisions don’t (what is known as intention-action gap). Nudges then help them to act in the way that they desire, without restricting them in any way.

Now back to food...

Bizarre facts about food 🤔

Food shapes our identity. Same way as education and language.

Food triggers our memory. Smells, tastes and food texture leave imprints in our minds. We associate these with places and settings, feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.

Our food preferences are the cause of biases and stereotypes, leading to prejudices and cultural blind spots.

Europe is home to some disturbing meals: fermented fish in Scandinavia, offal stews on the Balkans, deep fried pizzas in Scotland, sadistically squashed birds cooked under pressure in France, Sardinia’s special type of sheep cheese, infested with semi-transparent insect larvae, will tickle all your senses in a way you won’t forget.

Our brains need food! It is the most calorie-demanding organ in our bodies. It consumes 20-25% of our energy, that is about 350 or 450 calories per day for the average woman or man, respectively.

Our brains demand food! They remind us to eat by signaling neurons to make us feel hungry and pumping chemicals to ensure we salivate and remember to eat. Thanks brain.

Our brains don’t always get it right. They can cause us to crave comfort food, or succumb to the present bias of “I will enjoy this today and exercise later”. Planning meals and snacks ahead of time helps.

Eating healthy foods can lead to a positive emotions like pride and increased self-esteem, especially if we make a habit of it.

Sharing foods that have rich historical and cultural traditions can reinforce the experience of familial and social affiliation.

Research on the fresh start effect suggests that people are more likely to initiate goal-directed behavior (like healthy eating) on the first day of the year, month, and week, as well as other special days like birthdays. The motivational boost at these times seems to originate from a tendency to think about our best selves, rather than our past selves.

Avoid praising fish & chips in Paris or hawaiian pizza in Rome. Or do so at your own peril.


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