Why is it so difficult to make healthy food choices?


Vitality Magazine explains why we struggle to stay clear of foods that are bad for us and how making small changes today can go a long way

African man in a stylish orange hat and denim jacket chooses natural juice in glass bottles in a grocery supermarket standing at the shelves with products

‘You are what you eat’, the adage – not Dr Gillian Mckeith's early noughties TV show – connects food with our health. As the saying goes, eating nutritious food is what we need to stay fit and healthy.

But Britain is grappling with an obesity crisis. UK residents are among the worst ranked for obesity in Europe with one quarter of adults in England estimated to be obese, and a further 38% are deemed overweight.

Hotly debated are the reasons why Brits are busting at the seams – from drinking too much alcohol, to eating out too often and over-consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

But indulgences aside, there are other factors beyond our control that are contributing to our expanding waistlines; enemy number one... biology.

“Our bodies crave fats and sugars, for example, from the days when it wasn’t heavily available,” says Dr Katie Tryon, Vitality’s Director of Health Strategy.

“That’s why unhealthy food tastes good and we want it; we are biologically designed to want it because it was once scarce.

”Foods that are rich in fat and sugar can increase our ‘feel-good’ hormone in our brain – dopamine – by almost 200% according to some findings.

Hence why, when we eat these types of foods, we feel rewarded for doing so. Essentially, biology, is working against us. Our bodies also need an energy source to support the digestive process.

Ever felt yourself craving a sweet treat at the end of a meal? Likely, we’re reaching for the cookie jar to give our bodies a flurry of energy and help digest our last meal.

Psychologically, then, it is harder to make a conscious healthy food choice because our bodies biologically prefer foods that are bad for us.

This concept feeds into what behavioural economists call ‘hyperbolic discounting’ – that we are more likely to choose immediate rewards over those that would benefit us in the future.

Similarly, as humans, we struggle to comprehend the impact our indulgences will have on our health in the future; something known as ‘optimism bias’.

This concept means that we are more likely to overestimate how healthy we are, and so we are likely to overestimate our chances of positive experiences over negative ones.

How to break a habit

Hot on the heels of our bodies working against us, are our habits around unhealthy cooking.

“Are you used to getting up from your desk every hour, going out and eating something you don’t really want or need? There’s a habit to that,” says Dr Katie.

“The same applies if you’re used to cooking unhealthy food, there’s a routine around that, which you have to break in order to eat healthier, as well as tackling biological cravings,” she adds.

With switching to cooking healthy food comes the overarching assumption that healthy eating is time-consuming, restrictive and, all in all, doesn’t taste as good as unhealthy foods.

So, if our brains aren’t being rewarded for the healthy foods we eat and we’re unable to comprehend the damage we’re doing to our bodies when we do eat unhealthy foods, how do we tackle it? Especially now that the World Cancer Research Fund recommends we eat 30 plant-based foods a week.

Making small changes, every so often, can make a meaningful difference, according to James Vickers, a Vitality Expert and nutritionist.

“Choose one or two things every week to alter. I like to encourage people to add something to their diet first [rather than taking away], but make sure what you are adding into your diet is fruit, vegetables, wholefoods, lean protein and water.

“It’s important to find out what you are missing in your diet rather than trying to restrict all the things you enjoy.”

James adds: “Everyone will probably know what they could have less of but adding something in can result in unconsciously eating less of the unhealthier food.

Knowledge is power

On top of the difficulties with changing behaviours, findings also show that Brits struggle to know what eating healthily actually is, and that there is widespread confusion among adults and young people about what counts towards your five-a-day.

The British Nutrition Foundation found that less than 40% of adults and 23% of older children (11-16 years old) knew that carrots contain fibre, while one quarter of primary schoolchildren (7-11 years old) believe that chicken counts towards your recommended five-a-day.

More than half (57%) of Brits’ daily intake of calories is made up of UPFs. Likely, anything we make in our kitchens – from scratch – isn’t going to be processed, but foods such as crisps, some breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks are all UPFs, and can have damning results on our health.

“Some food we eat must be processed before we eat it (bread, pasta, grains etc) but ultra-processed food has been through a process from its raw form to the moment you eat it,” says James.

“This can result in some of the nutrients being lost or some additives and preservatives being added like saturated fat, salt, sugar etc.

In addition, it can create extra calories, causing weight gain or consuming too much saturated fat, salt and sugar which can cause weight gain, heart issues or disease.”

It’s all connected

Strong evidence, meanwhile, suggests that our lifestyle choices are very much connected. If we engage in one healthy habit, it is likely to spur on another.

The connections between mental and physical wellbeing have been well documented, and Vitality data shows this is also the case with nutrition.

This means that exercising and looking after our mental wellbeing is associated with making healthy food choices[1].

So, to ensure our members are looking after their health, Vitality focuses on three pillars  physical activity, mental wellbeing and nutrition  to encourage sustained behaviour change.

To do so, the Vitality Programme incentivises members to eat healthier through the Healthy Food benefit with Waitrose & Partners.

Through this, members with both health and life plans can access up to 40% cashback on their healthy food shops when they get active*.

Similarly, those who get physically active and earn Vitality activity points, can benefit from up to £10 off anything from Mindful Chef every week.

By engaging with these benefits, our data shows that, on average, members who engage with the Programme significantly improve their diet over the course of their first plan year.

Some 27% admitted to reducing their consumption of fatty foods, while 11% upped their intake of fruit and vegetables[2].

Meanwhile, those who could be at-risk of type-2 diabetes have the option to get discounted access to Second Nature, which offers a personalised healthy weight journey.

Dr Katie says: “Through the Vitality Programme, we already know the incredible potential for incentivised behaviour change in this area, with many customers having lost weight as a result of our pathways and interventions.”

But there is still more to be done. 

[1] Vitality research into Vitality Programme data, 2023
[2] Vitality research into Vitality Programme data, 2023

*If you have a qualifying health or life insurance plan, you can get up to 25% cashback. If you have both a qualifying health and life insurance plan, you can get up to 40% cashback. Cashback is available on Waitrose Good Health products online and in-store, excluding drinks, and is based on the Vitality activity points earned in the previous month. Online purchases have a minimum spend of £40 and a delivery charge will apply. A monthly spend cap applies of £100 for individual plans, or £200 for plans with two or more adult members. To use the benefit, you will need to register for a myWaitrose card and link it to your Vitality membership.

Share This Article
stanley-pink-rgb (1)
Vitality rewards

At Vitality, we encourage our members to make small positive lifestyle choices that make a big impact. That’s why we offer partner benefits and rewards through the Vitality Programme.

Find out more by downloading the Vitality app or visit vitality.co.uk.