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Psychology Explains Why We Don’t Eat Fruit and Vegetables

By David Saunders, Health Editor | UPDATED: 07:12, 28 October 2019

We all know that fruit and vegetables can improve our health in a powerful way and we’re more than familiar with the ‘5 A Day’ campaign. However, despite research revealing 90% of people know about the recommendation of 5 A Day, 69% of UK adults and 92% of 11-18-year olds are still failing to eat the recommended minimum servings of fruits and vegetables. So why the disconnect?

New research published in Nutrition Reviews has identified several factors contributing to the nationwide shortfall in fruit and vegetable consumption and suggests that our psychology may be to blame. Dr. David Benton, Professor of Psychology, Swansea University and lead author of the review commented: “With health promotion, the giving of basic information is easy; the difficult part is changing behaviour. The 5 A Day message is familiar, yet very few Brits meet that goal because information is not enough, we need to be psychologically ready. Central to changing any behaviour is self-efficacy, the belief we have in our abilities and competencies.”

Dr. Benton cites the psychosocial factors that influence eating fruit and veg as self-efficacy, social support and knowledge about the importance of consuming them for good health. He explains that intrinsic motivation (or “freely chosen behaviour”) is more likely to result in positive health behaviours than extrinsic motivation (or “something done for social approval”). Intrinsic motivation occurs when there is competence, autonomy and support from others.

He adds: “When we explore low success rates of fruit and vegetable consumption, we find many people identify barriers such as inconvenience, preparation time, affordability. However, this research suggests that our self-efficacy (our belief that we can achieve a goal) is a determining factor in fruit and vegetable consumption.”

Benton added: “By changing our thinking process and focusing on practical solutions, we can overcome barriers. Fruit juice, rather than intact fruit, is more likely to generate feelings of self-efficacy and hence is more likely to be associated with long-term changes in diet. Fruit juice is not meant to replace fruit, but it can potentially improve 5 A Day success. Moreover, a 150ml glass of 100% fruit juice is recommended by Public Health England and contributes to the 5 A Day target – research shows fruit juice drinkers are 42% more likely to achieve their 5 A Day goal”.

This is supported by a study published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine which looked at the effect of a self-efficacy intervention in establishing behaviour change related to increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. In this study, participants were split into two groups – both groups were given basic nutrition and health education including the benefits of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, but on top of this basic training, one group were also given a programme focussed on self-efficacy.

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For example, they planned when, where, and how they intended to consume fruit and vegetables.

The study found that the group who received self-efficacy training had a higher intent to consume and did in fact consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables compared to the group that were simply told the basic information.

Tips for Increasing Self-Efficacy:

Benton provides some guidance to increase and enhance self-efficacy in order to achieve a healthy lifestyle.

·         Choose foods that offer fewer barriers to consuming. Fruit juice rather than intact fruit is associated with feelings of efficacy and competence, with the possibility that this will generate intrinsic motivation.  Few people will feel unable to open a carton or bottle.

·         You need to think when, where and how you will get your 5 A Day. Plan to have fruit and vegetables in the house and have a stock of juice to top them up.

·         Research meals that you will enjoy: Choose a vegetable-based stir-fry with a sauce that you enjoy.  It could be spicy-ginger, tomato or citrus based, but most importantly provide a pleasant taste.

·         Add a 150ml portion of 100% fruit juice to your daily routine. Breakfast is a great opportunity and starts off the day with a positive start to 5 A Day achievement.

·         Monitor your fruit & veg consumption quantitatively.  If you try for 10,000 steps a day, why not also aim for 5 A Day?

Tips for Achieving our 5 A Day:

Consultant Dietitian Helen Bond added, “People are often time poor, juggling busy work schedules with the hectic demands of family life, and together with worries about meal preparation, people can turn to convenience foods to eat quickly and easily. I understand those pressures, but with a little forward planning, achieving 5 A Day doesn’t require extra time.”

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