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Changing Minds about Changing Behaviours: Obesity in focus

It's increasingly clear that reducing obesity requires healthy food to be more available, accessible and affordable. However, new research from Nesta and the Behavioural Insights Team shows that the public still place more faith in measures that try to change the behaviour of individuals. Public opinion is important to the government and food industry, which means progress on tackling obesity is at risk. Nesta and BIT conducted an online experiment to better understand the public’s attitude towards different interventions aimed at reducing obesity. We also explored whether attitudes were affected by framing messages differently, and who the messengers were.

From campaigns encouraging families to swap their chocolate breakfast cereal for a healthy bowl of porridge to sugar-taxes aimed at persuading food companies to reformulate their high-sugar products, the government, food industry and the third sector have a wide range of policies in their toolbox when it comes to reducing obesity. However, some policies aimed at reducing obesity can run into public opposition, making their implementation less likely. Further, there are examples in the past of campaigns that have been criticised for reinforcing stigma and fat-shaming; as such, these may actually have contributed to weight gain and poor health.

Several factors may win public support for obesity interventions. For one, beliefs about the causes of obesity may shape perceptions on how best to tackle it; the way we talk about the drivers of obesity could influence public support for policies that seek to reduce it. Support is also likely to be influenced by public views on how and when government should intervene in daily life, so using messengers from outside government could be influential in increasing support for specific government interventions..

Whatever the mediating factors, what people think matters: if governments are unwilling to introduce unpopular interventions, then progress on tackling obesity is at risk.

Key findings:

  • Interventions which participants found to be the most acceptable are also the ones they perceived to be most effective. However, the interventions that were reported to be least effective and least acceptable are those that are likely to have the greatest potential for promoting healthy eating at the population level. Addressing the disconnect between the evidence base and public understanding may be a viable way of influencing public acceptability.
  • Encouragingly, all interventions we asked about were supported by a majority of participants. However, in general interventions that involved providing information or enabling individuals to make better decisions were seen to be more acceptable than those that change, disincentivise or restrict food choices. This can be explained as stemming from the widely held, but false, belief that obesity is largely due to a lack of willpower by individuals. This adds to the growing body of evidence that changing this narrative - by looking to the media, advertising, and other societal influences that have propagated it - is an essential next step.
  • Interventions receive less public support if they are communicated by the government. This suggests that using a government messenger should be avoided when proposing or communicating obesity interventions to the public. However, it raises additional questions about who or which types of organisations might be better placed to communicate this information.


Jonathan Bone

Jonathan Bone

Jonathan Bone

Mission Manager, healthy life mission

Jonathan works within Nesta Cymru (Wales), focusing on working across public, private and non-profit sectors to deliver innovative solutions that tackle obesity and loneliness in Wales.

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Moria Sloan

Moria Sloan

Moria Sloan

Chief of Staff

Moria is supporting Nesta's strategy, leadership team and thought leadership agendas.

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Helen Brown

Dr. Helen Brown is a Senior Advisor in the Health team at BIT, focused on obesity. She specialises in public health and behavioural epidemiology, and associated research methods.

Hannah Behrendt

Dr. Hannah Behrendt is Head of Health at the Behavioural Insights Team, and combines in-depth experience of policy development and evaluation with deep expertise in behavioural science.

Zara Goozee

Dr. Zara Goozee is an Advisor in the Health team at BIT, working across a range of clinical and preventative health trials.

Hugo Harper

Hugo Harper is a Director at the Behavioural Insights Team. He has expertise applying behavioural insights to a wide range of implementation and policy issues, but has a particular int…

Lev Tankelevitch

Dr Lev Tankelevitch is Research Advisor in the Health team at BIT.

James Farrington

James Farrington is Associate Research Advisor at BIT