Behavioral Economic Concepts To Encourage Healthy Eating in School Cafeterias: Experiments and Lessons From College Students
by David R Just, Brian Wansink, Lisa Mancino
, and Joanne Guthrie
Economic Research Report No. (ERR -68) 28 pp, December 2008
Poor diet quality, overconsumption, and inactivity can lead to
poor health. Even with the plethora of weight-loss programs and
diet books currently available, diet-related health conditions like
obesity and diabetes continue to rise. Traditional economic
analyses seem inadequate to explain why so many people choose risky
health behaviors. Consequently, some researchers are turning to
behavioral economics, which tries to explain why people act as they
do and what incentives can modify behavior.
What Is the Issue?
Experiments have shown that the eating environment, such as the
social atmosphere, the presence and level of distractions, or even
lighting, can affect people's food choices and how much they eat.
Some of those same cues can also be used to help individuals make
healthier food choices. Finding successful ways to promote
healthier food choices could be an important tool for the school
meals programs, for example, which aim to strike a balance between
meeting the dietary needs of students who are undernourished and
encouraging healthy diets and body weight. Cafeteria administrators
are in a unique position to control many of the elements that have
been shown to influence food choice. By understanding how these
behavioral interventions influence food choice and diet quality,
managers of school and workplace cafeterias can devise possible
strategies to promote healthy eating. This report describes a
behavioral experiment in a college cafeteria, which assessed the
effects of various menu selection methods and payment options on
food choices. The experiment was designed to apply within the
context of any cafeteria-whether college, work, or secondary
What Did the Study Find?
College students who preselected their meals from a menu board
before seeing them did not always make healthier food choices than
students who made their selections in line where they could see the
food. In fact, viewing led to significantly greater consumption of
healthier foods- salad and turkey sandwiches-and significantly less
consumption of less healthy foods-French fries and caffeine.
Viewing brownies, however, also significantly increased brownie
consumption. The impact of viewing different foods may have more to
do with how attractive they are than how healthy they are.
Students who participated in the experiment could pay for their
meals in one of three ways-cash, prepaid cards to be used for any
menu item (unrestricted debit cards), or prepaid cards to be used
for more healthful items only (restricted debit cards). Their
payment method affected the amount of money they spent on meals.
Those using cash spent more on average than those who used an
unrestricted debit card. Students using the restricted debit card
spent the least on less nutritious items, whereas those using the
unrestricted card spent the most on these foods.
The payment option significantly affected the types of foods
chosen as well. College students paying with cash made healthier
food choices than those paying with an unrestricted debit card, who
were significantly more likely to purchase a brownie and a soda but
less likely to buy skim milk and healthful side items and desserts.
Parting with cash appeared to force more cognizant decisionmaking.
Students using restricted cards made significantly healthier
students paying with either cash or unrestricted cards. In many
cases, these differences were prominent and suggest that it is
possible to change behavior by altering payment methods used for
Students using the unrestricted debit card consumed
significantly more calories than students using either cash or the
restricted card, with those using the restricted card consuming the
fewest calories. Not only did the number of calories differ by
payment method, the calories derived from healthful foods varied as
well. Although those using the unrestricted card consumed the most
calories, they consumed the least amount of calories from more
nutritious foods. Those using the restricted card consumed the
fewest calories overall but consumed more calories from more
nutritious foods. Students using the restricted card also consumed
significantly less added sugar, total fat, saturated fat, and
caffeine than those who used the unrestricted card.
How Was the Study Conducted?
This report presents results from an experiment comparing the
effects of various behavioral intervention strategies on the food
choices of college students. Participants in the experiment were
recruited from Cornell University. The experiment's participants
used three types of payment options and two different meal