What are "Nudges" and How Can you Use Them?

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Written by: Heather Gerrish, MS, RDN

Nudges, or nudging is a method that is commonly used in today’s world to persuade your mind to pick one food item over another, or to grab that extra snack while waiting in line to purchase groceries. They are strategically placed, expertly designed and made to make your mouth water with elaborate and enticing descriptions of the food that the producer wants you to choose. 

Nudging is most common in large food service settings, similar to the grocery store example. It is the strategic placement of “goodies” while you are patiently waiting in line to purchase your healthy food items that abruptly stop you to take a look, think and consider what would happen if you added a sweet treat to your shopping carts. 

This strategy is also used in schools, cafeterias and other major locations where food is sold (including your favorite restaurant!). Noticing a nudge has a few key concepts. Let’s review some of these variables and see if you can spot them the next time you are out at a store or eating at your favorite restaurant!

Nudges often contain:

Enticing language: Instead of creating the label “carrots” the dish might be “Vitamin A Indulgences” (for a somewhat comical example!). The idea is to create a more appealing picture in your mind than that you previously thought about the same food if it had a simple, well known label. This starts the scene and attracts you to the item.

Location: often items that an industry or store WANTS you to purchase will be front and center, possibly even presented with a ‘better deal’ or have a snappy health claim next to it so you are enticed even further. Knowing this, and being aware that these items are marketed towards you, the consumer, in a way that is both appealing visually and via cost/benefit analysis in your head. Looks good? CHECK Cost ok? CHECK Easy access/high level of attention? CHECK

Using nudges is a way that markets (not only for food) can persuade buyers to consider certain items, but when specifically discussing food and how this can influence your nutrition choices - it is important to use nudges to your advantage!

This is not to say that nudges are not good (or are not used in a positive way). Often, in settings like school cafeterias or after school snack bars, nudges are used and formulated to promote healthy choices for students and also promote being independent with purchasing their own food items. Often this includes placing whole fruit ahead of the lunch stand, including a salad bar with enticing menu items or including a well known celebrity or spokesperson to market a certain item (for example, milk). This method allows younger children to make independent choices, but also provides some structure and guidance on what healthy items are available to them. 

So how can we use “nudges” to our advantage?

  1. Place what you want to eat RIGHT in front of you. Make it easy! Prep the night before, plan out and portion your dinner and keep it in the fridge for a few days a week (batch cook - portion out - save). Make the “healthy” stuff easy to access and the items you are having as “treats” less noticeable/accessible or out of plain sight. Of course, if you are craving something sweet - listen to your body and integrate this into your day - the idea being that you might want to reconsider having a large bowl of candy on the kitchen table and swap it for a bowl of whole or cut fruit to snack on. The ideas are endless!

  2. Make meals enticing! On your own or with your family, make your meals sound amazing! Sure we know that carrots contain vitamin A, but we don’t really highlight this as a food description. Try looking at food in a way that views food in a positive way that nourishes your body! Add new flavors, try new combos and test out recipes you find interesting. All nudging you in the right direction!

For example, take the following meal: garlic baked chicken, brown rice and grilled asparagus

Alternative View: lean protein to help rebuild and replenish, brown rice to keep you fueled and ready to take on the day/your workout/recovery etc, grilled asparagus to provide an abundance of vitamins and minerals to assist your body in keeping you happy and healthy! 

A change of mindset goes a long way! And recognizing the benefit food has to not only satisfy your hunger, but fuel your body is another wonderful practice to implement! 

So what do you think about “nudges”? Have you experienced or recognized these before? 

With this knowledge, apply your own take on how nudges shape your buying power and perception of food! 

Heather Gerrish