The Behaviour and Health Research Unit contributes evidence to national and international efforts to achieve sustained behaviour change to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.The main focus of our work is on developing effective ways of changing three sets of behaviour – smoking, and excessive consumption of food and alcohol. Changing these behaviours positively would help to prevent the majority of the preventable non-communicable diseases, including many cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. From 2010-2019, our main programme of research was funded by NIHR. In 2018 we received a Collaborative Award in Science from Wellcome for a new programme of research ‘Behaviour Change by Design’.

Does altering the availability or proximity of food, alcohol and tobacco products change their selection and consumption?

Changing our food environments, by making certain foods less available or less convenient to access, may be one way of reducing how much we select, purchase or eat. Until now, the possible impact of such changes has not been known.

We conducted a Cochrane Review to assess whether altering the availability (the range of options) or proximity (the distance at which they are positioned) of food products changes how much they are selected (such as purchased) or consumed. We searched for all available evidence from randomised controlled trials, and found 24 studies, including more than 3000 participants, all on food.

This review provides the most conclusive evidence to date that people select less of a type or range of food when there are fewer different options of that food available to choose from. For example, people select fewer unhealthy products from vending machines or in cafeterias when there are fewer unhealthy options available. The results are less clear on how this affects the amount of food that is actually consumed. This review also provides the most conclusive evidence to date that people consistently consume less of a food when it is placed further away than when it is nearer to them, although effects on selection are very unclear.

To read the findings of the study in full, click here.

Hollands, G.J., Carter, P., Anwer, S., King, S.E., Jebb, S.A., Ogilvie, D., Shemilt, I., Higgins, J.P.T., Marteau, T.M. (2019). Altering the availability or proximity of food, alcohol and tobacco products to change their selection and consumption. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews; 8:CD012573.

Public acceptability of nudging and taxing to reduce consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and food

Smoking, and excessive consumption of alcohol and unhealthy snacks are leading causes of years of life lost globally. Promising interventions include nudging – changes to the physical environment to “nudge” people toward healthier behaviours – and taxation. Implementing such interventions often requires government intervention, which is made more likely by public support. We examined support for these interventions in a survey with an experimental design involving 7058 English adults.

Overall 60% supported these policies with support varying by policy and behaviour. Putting graphic warning labels on products received strongest support (from 78%), followed by reducing product size (59%), then taxing the product (57%), and finally reducing the availability of the product (47%).

To read the findings of the study in full, click here.

Reynolds, J. P., Archer, S., Pilling, M., Kenny, M., Hollands, G. J., & Marteau, T. M. (2019). Public acceptability of nudging and taxing to reduce consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and food: A population-based survey experiment.

Do larger glasses increase sales of wine in bars and restaurants?

This replication paper published in BMC Research Notes, adds to previous studies (Pechey et al 2016; Pechey et al 2017) that show an effect of glass size on sales, in bar and restaurant settings in Cambridge, England. The current paper outlines four studies, in two bars and one restaurant. In each study, the establishment served wine in small (290ml), medium (350ml) or large glasses (450ml), and this was changed over fortnightly periods for a period of 18 or 26 weeks.

Wine glass size and wine sales: four replication studies in one restaurant and two bars. Clarke N, Pechey R, Pilling M, Hollands GJ, Mantzari E, & Marteau TM.

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MRC student Tess Langfield wins International Collaborative Award

Tess Langfield has won a 2019 ‘Health and Behavior International Collaborative Award’ to conduct a psychophysiological experiment in Sydney, Australia.

The award enabled Tess to travel to Australia to conduct a novel experiment using facial electromyography to measure activity in a specific facial muscle called the orbicularis oris, during sipping from glasses of different shapes. Tess visited Macquarie University, Sydney, to work with Dr Philippe Gilchrist and A/Prof Melissa Norberg on the project, which was conducted in a specialist lab at Macquarie. This project builds on her Ph.D. research, which investigates the impact of glass shape on drinking behaviours for soft drinks.

There were four other winners of the HBIC award in 2019, which was set up to enable researchers to visit an international laboratory or research group under the guidance of an identified international mentor.

To see the full text of the interview with Lucy Lloyd click here.

Should we change the number of less healthy food options available rather than the number of healthier options?

We examined the impact on food selection of the number of (i) healthier and (ii) less healthy snack foods available in an online study of 1,509 adults. Offering additional less healthy options was twice as likely to affect the foods selected than offering additional healthier options. This suggests that removing less healthy as opposed to adding healthier food options could have greater impact on encouraging healthier selections.

Availability of healthier vs. less healthy food and food choice: an online experiment. Pechey, R., & Marteau, T. M. BMC Public Health

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