Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Food Environment

In a multi-tasking, efficiency-seeking world, demand for quick and convenient food has skyrocketed. Meals rely less and less on home cooking, and more and more on convenience. Though we want to believe that free will and personal choice triumph over all other factors, the environment actually has a significant impact on what we eat. Perception differs from reality with food in the same way it does with advertising: Most people believe they are immune from the influence of advertising, yet they believe that every other person is susceptible.

The blunt reality of the modern food environment, particularly in developed countries, is captured in the following table:

Unhealthy Food
More available
Perceived as better tasting
Heavily promoted

Healthy Food
Less available
Less convenient
Perceived as worse tasting
Promoted very little
More expensive

Availability & Proximity

Food is more available now than ever before, but some foods are much easier to find than others. What’s available and convenient tends not to be nutritious. People will eat even food they don’t particularly like – old candy around the office, stale popcorn at the movies – simply because it’s available. Marketers know that people choose what’s accessible, so they place high-profit items in vending machines and in easy places like eye-level shelves in the supermarket.

Portion Size & Increased Consumption

People eat more when given larger portions, which is a problem because portion sizes have morphed from moderate to monstrous. Soft drinks that once came in 6.5-ounce bottles are now widely sold in 20- or 24-ounce sizes. The package of french fries that McDonald’s once called large is now sold as “small.” Muffins, bagels, cookies, you name it – everything is bigger or packaged in larger containers. The names say it all: Enormous Omelet, Monster Burger, Extreme Gulp, Whopper, Big Grab. People have come to believe that a “serving “is whatever resides in a bag, box, or bottle -- and the bags, boxes, and bottles have grown unreasonably large.

Many, many other factors encourage maximum food purchasing and eating. Supermarkets play background music at exactly the right number of beats per minute to maximize how long a person shops. Snack foods come in containers that fit in automobile cup holders. Food markets and shopping malls release chemically created smells into the air to draw people to specific locations.

Social Factors

Broad social factors are central to the eating environment. For example, poverty is a strong predictor of risk for obesity. People in poor neighborhoods eat healthier diets if they have access to a supermarket, but large supermarkets are rare in inner cities. The number of hours a child watches television, the number of soft drinks consumed, and the amount of fast food eaten are all related to risk for obesity. And, of course, there’s an economic incentive to eat poorly: Numerous studies have shown that it costs more to eat healthier. Between 1985 and 2000, for instance, the cost of soft drinks increased 20 percent while the costs of fruits and vegetables rose 117 percent.

Changing people’s behavior requires real change in the environment. Some changes may be possible through educating the public, but the size and seriousness of this issue make it likely that voluntary changes by industry, combined with legislative, regulatory, and legal advances, will also be necessary.