How behavioral design can support healthy eating?


That is the question The National Collaborative of Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) tries to answer through its initiative ‘the Health, Behavioral Design, and Built Environment Project’.

In its white paper published in 2017, the NCCOR reminds us that our environment (and the physical and informational exposure we have to it) enables, guides, encourages, requires and informs our behavior – and not always positively.

Indeed, it is possible to intentionally design environments to have specific behavioral outcomes in most settings, such as homes, public buildings, schools, workplaces and etc., by relying on architecture, behavioral economics, psychology, and environmental design.

What do we mean by design environments?

With regard to encouraging healthy eating, factors can include ambience, functional design and colors of the purchase, location of consumption, labeling, presentation, options for ordering, sizing, pricing, choices for priming and prompting – and so on.

Three important biases identified by behavioral economists can be applied to design environments for specific behavioral outcomes. We think of them as part of the Drivers of Influence that act as catalysts for behavioral change.

1. Easiness is a key driver to design pro-health choice environment; the easier an action is, the more likely we are to adopt it.

This is what researchers at Irrational Labs call the Path of Least Resistance, and can be defined as the behavior that is most easily done in a given environment. The smallest friction can discourage a certain behavior.

In design, the placement of items matters; make healthy choices easy to reach and, likewise, unhealthy choices difficult.

It can be as simple as designing the layout of a cafeteria to have the healthiest option shown first and/or make unhealthy foods less visible.

In their paper, Irrational Labs researchers describe how Google has taken insights from behavioral design and applied them in their workplace cafeterias. They have moved candy to opaque dispensers and found that this simple nudge reduced employees’ caloric intake from sweets by 9% in just a week. They also found that placing water at eye level increased water intake by 45% and reduced caloric intake from drinks by 7%.

2. Default is one of the most prominent and effective ways to design health-friendly environments.

Defaults are usually defined as ‘choices that have already been preselected, making it necessary for a person to take active steps to avoid them if they want to choose another option’. We humans are more likely to stick to the default option than look for alternative which requires time and energy.

An example of using default to promote healthy eating could be automatically serving vegetables as side dishes in school or workplace cafeterias unless people specifically request otherwise.

The Default option is used to guide choices across a number of domains such as organ donations and saving for retirement, as well as food choices.

An experiment at a conference has shown the power of default: when a non-vegetarian buffet is presented as the default option and people have to actively ask for the vegetarian meal, 98% stick to non-veggie menu. When reversed and the vegetarian buffet is the default option, only 13% request a non-vegetarian buffet – 87% stick to the default option.

3. Framing is the third bias involved in designing environments.

Framing refers to the fact that the way information is presented can affect decision making. Different wordings, settings, and situations will have a powerful effect on decision-makers.

The most famous example of framing is Mark Twain’s story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. By framing the chore in positive terms – and even as an enjoyable or entertaining activity – he got his friends to pay him for the ‘privilege’ of doing his work.

In healthcare, research by Brian Wansink found that putting fruit in an appealing bowl and well-lit area increases fruit consumption by 103%.

Research on size descriptions showed that labels are important because they influence size perceptions, preferences and actual consumption. For instance, researchers found that ‘labeling down’ (labeling a large portion ‘medium’) makes people eat more but think that they eat less.

To conclude, if you want specific behavioral outcomes, then behavioral design strategies must be considered when building the environment.


This is true whether you are public authority, an individual (seeking to change his or her family’s behavior), researcher, retailer, architect or real estate developer.

Moreover, more and more architects and real estate developers are realizing how the environments they construct actually affect people, and the opportunities (and obligations) to society that this presents.

Recognizing this significant development, the BVA Nudge Consulting is working with OGIC, a French real estate developer to create “Nudge buildings” designed to help their inhabitants adopt sustainable behaviors thanks to the practical application of behavioral design before and during construction.

For more information about how designing environments within a behavioral framework can impact citizens lives and change behaviors for the better, and to learn more about the Drivers of Influence, feel free to contact me via the email address below.