Healthy by Nature: Experiencing Nature Leads to Healthier Food Choices

Healthy by Nature: Experiencing Nature Leads to Healthier Food Choices

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In the summer of 2011, my fellow cyclists from The University of Texas at Austin and I embarked on a journey of more than 4,000 miles from Austin, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska, to raise money for cancer research. These UT Austin students were part of a non-profit organization called, Texas 4000 for Cancer, an organization that spreads hope, knowledge, and charity in the fight against cancer through the longest charity bike ride in the world. This expansive bike ride navigated through a diverse range of North American terrain, encompassing everything from the towering foliage of the Redwood trees to the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco streets.

While on the journey as a Texas 4000 cyclist, I witnessed something remarkable in myself as well as some of my teammates: the tendency to lean towards more healthy, unprocessed foods while in natural environments, despite their relative lack of convenience and availability in some cases. This idea later inspired me as a graduate student, and ultimately led me and my co-author/doctoral dissertation advisor on a long journey towards understanding whether experiencing the natural environment can indeed induce healthy food consumption decisions.

Our Research

In our new paper titled, “Experiencing Nature Leads to Healthier Food Choices”, my co-author, Pierre Chandon, and I investigate how experiencing nature leads to healthier food choices when compared to urban environments or to a neutral environment (i.e., a control condition). Through a series of five experiments, we show that nature exposure leads to healthier food choices while leaving food quantity consumption unchanged; that is, the experience of nature influenced food quality decisions without significantly impacting food quantity consumption.

In the first study, Parisian residents were randomly assigned to either go on a 20-minute walk in Parc Montsouris, a large public park in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, or on a walk of the same length but in nearby city streets. After completing their timed walks, participants returned to the research site, which had been set up with a snack buffet that was framed as participants’ compensation for participation in the study. In reality, the snack buffet was more than just a reward for participation—but served to measure what and how much participants ate, the outcome of interest for us. In the end, the total amount of food consumed was not significantly different between the nature and the urban walkers. What was particularly remarkable, however, was that the nature walkers consumed significantly more healthy foods, and less unhealthy foods, on average, when compared to the urban walkers. The intake of the nature walkers was 70% healthy and 30% unhealthy. The consumption of the urban walkers, however, was 39% healthy and 61% unhealthy. 

To understand the robustness of nature’s effects on food choices, we expanded on our initial field study by introducing virtual exposure to nature through photographs. In our second study, participants were presented with a scenario in which they are lounging around in their hotel room with a window view that either depicts a nature scene, an urban scene, or the same window with the curtains closed (control condition). Then, participants were asked to make a meal selection—comprising of a main course, side dish, and beverage—from a room service menu that showcased a variety of healthy and unhealthy foods and beverages that had been pre-tested for healthiness. Again, participants with the nature view made significantly healthier food choices when compared to those with the urban window view as well as those with the closed curtain window view—with no significant differences noted between the participants with the urban and closed curtain window views.

Not only did the results of our online studies provide converging evidence for nature’s influence on healthy eating, but they also allowed us to expand on our knowledge and understanding of this phenomenon. For instance, food healthiness may sometimes become conflated with the notion of low-calorie, diet foods. One study, however, demonstrates that, after being exposed to nature scenes, consumers are more likely to select a natural, healthy snack and less likely to consume a diet, light snack or a tasty, indulgent snack. These findings show that experiencing nature ignites a desire for healthfulness that is reflected in one’s choices, as opposed to activating aesthetic or weight loss-oriented goals. Therefore, it seems that experiencing nature leads to healthier food choices out of a genuine desire to be healthier, as consumers increase the overall importance that they place on food healthfulness.

Overall, these findings help us develop a greater understanding of nature’s power and influence on our collective and individual well-being, our consumption behaviors, and ultimately, our ability to be influenced—particularly in the decisions that we make—by our surrounding environment. Our results have significant implications for society, and in particular, consumers, governments, and health-oriented firms. For starters, environmental conservation efforts may benefit from the knowledge and understanding of the underlying benefits that we experience from exposure to the natural environment. Additionally, research on green spaces in urban places has revealed inequalities in access to nature for African American and Hispanic populations in the United States, which is troubling when coupled with the fact that these same populations have experienced a disproportionate rise in obesity in America. In the end, we believe that access to nature is an important factor for public health and population well-being—and we hope that our research can serve as a catalyst for continued discussions, research, and action-oriented progress in this arena.

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Consumer Behavior
Humanities and Social Sciences > Business and Management > Marketing > Consumer Behavior
Humanities and Social Sciences > Business and Management > Marketing
Sociology of Consumption
Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Sociology > Sociology of Culture > Sociology of Consumption
Experimental Psychology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Psychological Methods > Experimental Psychology

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