A new study from health economists at the University of Bath, University of Edinburgh and the University of Malta, published in the journal European Economic Review, tested the impact of different public health information on dietary choices across a sample of 300 people from low income backgrounds.
It found that generic public health messages such as ‘eat 5 fruit and vegetables a day’ are more effective at shifting dietary habits than very specific advice tailored to individuals.
An experiment saw participants being allocated a budget and selecting items in a shopping basket. They were either receiving very specific information individualised to them or generic information, or no information at all.
The team of researchers from the universities of Bath and Edinburgh, as well as the University of Malta, found that the participants who received the generic health information selected the food baskets that contained less total fat and saturated fat, relative to other groups.
The authors attributed this to the fact that individualised information didn’t have an effect in the sense that participants weren’t given a free pass to carry on with their current dietary choices.
In the context of obesity, this research should act as a warning about increasing trends individualising health information. In fact, co-author of the study Dr Jonathan Spiteri from the University of Malta’s Faculty for Economics, Management & Accountancy said policy makers should keep these responses in mind when considering future health interventions.
Dr Jonathan James from the Department of Economics at the University of Bath explained that whilst the theory is that individualising advice will resonate more with people, tailoring advice might inadvertently give them a free pass to continuing to eat unhealthily.