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Should food choices be about more than just health?

When it comes to making choices on what to eat, these days most of us know a fair bit about what is and isn’t a healthy food choice. Choosing between a donut and a muesli bar? You already know what you’re ‘supposed’ to choose.

Food marketing bombards us with healthy eating messages – from labels on packages to advertising proffering the health benefits of certain products; ‘low sugar’, ‘low GI’, ‘great source of vitamins’ and so on. Meanwhile, social media influencers show off their impossibly colourful fresh salads, green smoothies and fruit platters.

But has the ‘health’ angle on food choices gone too far? Are we downplaying the value of other reasons why we eat – from social connections to cultural traditions to mental wellbeing?

Dr Paul Harrison, a senior lecturer in Deakin’s Department of Marketing, wonders this on his podcast, The Marketing Lab at Deakin:

‘When we do talk about food, it seems to be in the context of eating certain types of food as a means to get healthy and to avoid obesity, and I think one of the things that we aren’t great at doing in marketing is talking about food as something that can be enjoyed; that we can consume.’

Abandoning the shame and guilt around healthy eating

In food marketing, wellbeing is often couched in denying yourself something, with ‘indulgence’ in treats like ice-cream or chocolate often sold as ‘guilty pleasures’. But ‘wellbeing will have a different meaning at different times for different people,’ Dr Harrison points out.

Podcast co-host Dr Gini Weber, a lecturer in Deakin’s Department of Marketing, suggests there is value in consumers ‘having the ability to have an emotion-forward, wellbeing-forward choice that isn’t couched in purely guilt and shame’.

‘Sometimes we need to eat the vegetables. Sometimes we really do need to eat the chocolate cake. We’re having a hard day, and we need to give ourselves the space to do that,’ she suggests.

‘Food is a need, but it’s not only a need, it’s also something that we use to connect for our own personal history and past and to our families, and it’s a shame that we’ve been taught to feel shame or guilt around connecting to our heritage and history,’ Dr Weber says.

'One of the things that we aren’t great at doing in marketing is talking about food as something that can be enjoyed.'

Dr Paul Harrison,
Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Deakin University

Reframing our attitudes towards food choices

Social psychology research has found the way we think about our bodies impacts the way we treat them and the types of food we eat. Weber explains a piece of research that looked cross-culturally at people’s attitude to their body and food, breaking these into three groups:

  1. If you think of your body as a car, you’ll think of food as your fuel.
  2. If you think of your body as a temple, you’ll keep it clean and nourished with only the cleanest foods.
  3. If you think of your body as a tree, you’ll use food to grow and nourish it.

‘If our body’s in need of fuel then we give it more calorically dense food; if our body is something that needs nourishment we’re a little bit softer and kinder with our bodies – maybe choosing that chocolate cake sometimes but also choosing the vegetables because we know it’s good for us and we happen to like it,’ Weber explains.

Why vegetables need a rebrand

As with any product, when we enter into an interaction with a particular food, we bring with us a set of pre-conceived beliefs.

‘Whether it’s vegetables, whether it’s burgers, whether it’s anything really – humans are not empty vessels,’ Dr Harrison explains. ‘They bring with them an autobiography of all of their learned experiences to help them make those judgements about what they should and shouldn’t do and the decisions that you should make.’

So if we are conditioned to choose foods high in sugar, fat and salt, how can food marketing help us to make healthy choices intentionally rather than reluctantly? The answer: vegetables need a rebrand, suggests Alice Zaslavsky (known as Alice In Frames), ABC Breakfast’s culinary correspondent, former Masterchef contestant and guest on The Marketing Lab podcast.

‘The number one thing that I would say is stop trying to tell people that vegetables are healthy. our expectation of flavour goes down as soon as the word healthy is put in front of anything,’ she says, suggesting vegetables can come across very appealing when described in other ways like ‘crispy, crunchy, chilli-flaked, salty kale chips’.

‘Learn how to cook vegetables better, and don’t load yourself up with the guilt and shame that comes with feeling like you need to eat healthy, or even using the word “diet.”’

Listen to this conversation and others like it on the podcast, The Marketing Lab (at Deakin), on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Senior Lecturer, Department of Marketing, Deakin Business School

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Dr Virginia Weber
Dr Virginia Weber

Lecturer, Department of Marketing, Deakin Business School

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