For those of you who are familiar with my earlier posts, you might have noticed that I have a tendency to write about altering eating behaviours/habits. So far we have these behaviours narrowed down to practical implications, but they also relate to the effect that eating habits have upon the prevention of noncommunicable disease.

Our eating habits start to develop in childhood, and many continue into adolescence and adulthood, initially exemplified by the adaptive trait of neophobia (the “fear of something new,” typically peaking between two and five years of age). Neophobia can have a considerable influence on eating habits, and can decrease the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and meats. However, visual EXPOSURE to a novel food can reduce neophobia and facilitate its acceptance, for example, children who have been exposed to novel food pictures or actual foods before trying them have shown a greater willingness to try foods than those who have not been visually exposed (Wadhera & Capaldi-Phillips, 2014).

The environment has a clear effect upon visual exposure. For instance, supermarket checkouts; described as “the walk of shame”. Supermarket checkouts are filled with a plethora of calorific food choices forcing you to resist temptation to purchase an additional chocolate bar or pack of gummy sweets as you patiently wait in line. Coincidentally, such continual exposure to unhealthy food cues in the environment encourages poor dietary habits, in particular consuming too much fat and sugar, and not enough fruit and vegetables (Kakoschke et al. 2014).

These ‘supermarket guilt lanes’ may exploit persons through the influence of PROXIMITY and VISIBILITY: the food environment includes four microscale environmental factors than can influence food intake: the room (i.e. kitchenscapes), the furniture (i.e. tablescapes), the container (i.e. platescapes), and the food object (i.e. foodscapes). The kichenscape is “the appearance of a room or bounded setting where food is consumed” and includes the relative locations of foods within the bounded environment. Foods that are more proximate, more convenient, and more visible are often consumed in greater quantities e.g. office workers and secretaries consumed significantly more candies when made more available in a workplace setting (Privitera & Creary, 2012).

The practical implications of this observation could be substantial, affecting not only the home environment but also schools, restaurants, and the general community setting. At home, school-aged children have been found to consume greater quantities of fruit and vegetables in relation to the frequency in which parents provide, and the availability and accessibility of these foods (Wyse et al. 2011). The more healthy food available, the more it will be chosen. Alternatively, college students may be more likely to consume dessert when seated closer to the dessert station, desserts are more likely to be consumed when placed at the front than in the back of a cafeteria, and increased food and beverage purchase/consumption occurs when placed within arm’s reach than when placed further away (Wadhera & Capaldi-Phillips, 2014).

A potential cause for these relationships is an increased attention bias in response to external food cues (Kakoschke et al. 2014). In general, the sight of food can increase subjective sensations of hunger and appetite which are partially responsible for initiating food intake. Consequently, manipulating this response may facilitate improvements in eating habits. For instance, empty-calorie foods should be stored in opaque containers, away from the desk or in less accessible places to discourage their intake. Similarly, fruits and vegetables should be placed on the table to make them more visible, thereby increasing their intake (Wadhera & Capaldi-Phillips, 2014). A study by Privitera and Creary supports this, finding that college students ate more fruits when placed in open containers within arm’s reach than in closed, opaque containers placed far away (Privitera & Creary, 2012).

Obviously, in the household setting this environmental adjustment is good sense. However, the observed positive association between proximity and visibility with consumption may be extremely pertinent with regards to improving community health. For instance, the suggestion that higher concentrations of fast-food restaurants in poorer neighbourhoods may be associated with a higher prevalence of obesity in populations with low socioeconomic status, or the concern that the greater availability of snacks and drinks sold in schools is associated with higher intake of total calories, soft drinks, total fat and saturated fat, and lower intake of fruit and vegetables, milk, and key nutrients (Park et al. 2014) – all may be improved by manipulating one simple concept: exposure.

So what’s the take home of this?

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