Natural landscapes encourage healthier food choices

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Last reviewed: 14.06.2024

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18 May 2024, 15:59

Natural landscapes tend to evoke positive emotions and a sense of well-being in most people. New INSEAD research shows that green foods may also encourage people to make healthier food choices.

The study, published in Communications Psychology suggests that being in natural settings, such as walking in a park (as opposed to walking on city streets) or simply looking at greenery outside the window (as opposed to a city view) leads to people making healthier food choices afterwards.

"Our research shows that it was not the urban environment that led to unhealthy food choices, but nature that influenced people to eat healthier foods," says Pierre Chandon, one of the study's co-authors and a professor of marketing who holds the L'Oréal endowed chair. At INSEAD.

In one study, participants were randomly assigned to take a 20-minute walk through either a park or the busy streets of Paris. After this, all participants were offered a buffet with a variety of snacks - both healthy and less healthy.

Although both groups ate about the same amount of food, those walking in the park showed a clear preference for healthier snacks: 70% of their choices were healthy snacks, compared to just 39% for those walking around the city.

In another, more controlled experiment, participants were placed in simulated “hotel rooms” with different window views: a green pasture, a city street, or a control condition of a white wall with the curtains closed. They were asked to choose lunch from a room service menu that included healthy and unhealthy main courses, drinks and desserts.

The results repeated the previous experiment. Those who looked at nature chose healthier options, while those who looked at a cityscape or curtained wall showed less healthy preferences.

The idea for this study came from co-author Maria Langlois, who noticed how she and her fellow 7,200km charity bike ride mates gravitated towards healthier, unprocessed foods while riding in natural areas. Langlois, now an assistant professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, turned that observation into a series of rigorous field and online studies when she began graduate school at INSEAD.

Interestingly, research shows that not all natural environments have the same effect. The brightness and level of greenery in the environment can play a role. For example, when snow covers natural or urban views, the landscape does not influence food choice.

Researchers conducted another experiment to find out whether exposure to nature increases preferences for truly healthy and natural foods, or for any processed foods that claim to be healthy. They offered participants three types of snacks: dietary and light, healthy and natural, or tasty and indulgent.

Exposure to natural species decreased preference for both diet snacks and significantly shifted preference away from indulgent options toward healthier, more natural options.

These results provide hope for promoting healthier eating habits. Schools, companies and other organizations can use nature images in cafeterias to encourage students and employees to make healthier choices. Food marketers can use natural visual cues to promote healthy or natural products.

More importantly, this study reminds us of the important role of urban planning. By 2050, two thirds of the world's population will live in cities. The inclusion of green spaces in future urban landscapes will become even more important.

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