Have a Plant: Fruits & Veggies for Better Health

The Behavioral Science of Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption

Come January 1, millions of Americans will make resolutions to change their eating behavior. Come February 1, the vast majority will have given up. Behavior change is hard.

This series discusses evidence-based ways to make it a little less hard, with a focus, of course, on increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. We will offer concrete guidance about how to create better resolutions, and about how to stick with those resolutions.

Behavioral scientists often adopt a simple framework to describe three channels through which we can influence or change people’s behavior (including our own behavior). You can influence what people know, what people feel, or you can directly influence what people do.

Shifting focus to doing and feeling

It turns out that directly influencing what people do is often the most effective path to change. This is perhaps especially true in the food domain where we so often see an intention-action gap. People already know that there are healthier ways to eat. Indeed, they frequently make resolutions and intend to eat in those healthier ways. There isn’t a failure to know. There is a failure to do, a failure to take action.

A recent meta-analysis provides compelling evidence that behavior change tactics are most effective when they focus on directly changing what people do. The paper reviewed almost 300 interventions. The interventions were categorized as focusing on what people know (e.g., facts about nutrition), what people feel (e.g., emotional testimonials), or what people do (e.g., putting healthy items in easy to find places). The doing interventions were most effective, followed by feeling interventions. Knowing interventions, as in educating what people should do and why, were least effective.

Make it easy (to increase doing)

Nobel Prize winning economist, Richard Thaler, has said, “If you want people to do something, make it easy.” Most of the doing interventions from the review paper mentioned above are just versions of making it easier to eat healthfully.

In this series, we will discuss practical, evidence-based ways to make fruits and vegetables easier to eat. This will include tactics to make them…

  • easy to see
  • easy to grab
  • easy to find
  • easy to eat immediately
  • easy to plan
  • easy to keep around
  • easy to buy
  • easy to get in your mouth
  • easy to get in your kids’ mouths
  • easy to swallow
  • easy to like
  • easy to clean
  • easy to pack
  • easy to remember
  • easy to habitualize

In future posts, we will discuss the power of interventions like eating fruits and veggies at the beginning of a meal, and we will add nuance about exactly how people can implement these ideas at home or at work, or in their New Year’s resolutions.

Make it enjoyable (to increase feeling)

Evidence-based ways to make fruits and vegetables more enjoyable (i.e., influencing feelings) will also be a priority. And we use “enjoyable” in several senses, including fun or happy, but also tasty or delicious.

The series will showcase practical, evidence-based ways to make fruits and vegetables more enjoyable for people who may not yet like them, including kids, by creating…

  • less hesitation
  • more tolerance
  • more anticipation
  • more exposure
  • more cultivation of taste preference
  • more joy and pride
  • more social experiences,
  • and more social sharing

Future posts will examine the nuances of food enjoyment, including the power of exposure, culture, social media, and family. Always, the emphasis will be on concrete recommendations for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

What we know

People already know that fruits and vegetables are healthy, and indeed doing and feeling need much more emphasis. But knowledge can still be a barrier to eating fruits and vegetables, for example, among people who are overly skeptical of agricultural technologies, or people who are too narrowly focused on specific diet and health claims. So, we will talk about evidence-based ways to influence what people know, as well.

But mainly we’ll be talking about how to make fruits and veggies easy (i.e., increase doing), and how to make them enjoyable (i.e., increase feeling). These are the approaches that the field of behavioral science says can work. Let’s translate that science into increased consumption.

Read more in this series

Part 2: Habits: The ultimate way to make eating fruits and veggies easy

Part 3: Eat fruits and vegetables first: A great way to make it easy to eat more fruits and vegetables

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