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Just like children being enticed to finish their dinner with the promise of a treat, it appears that grown adults can be bribed into eating their vegetables — with cold hard cash instead of sweets — at least in the short-term.
According to the findings of a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology , paying frazzled people to eat fruit and vegetables results in increased consumption and a more relaxed state of mind. In reaching their conclusions, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder looked specifically at the relationship between financial incentives, eating habits and stress levels.
“What we know is that people tend to eat less healthy when they are stressed,” study co-author Angela Bryan, professor of psychology and neuroscience, told Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine . She added that the team set out to determine if incentivizing healthy behaviours could lessen the pressure people were feeling: “So, if you see a carrot less as something like, ‘Ugh, gosh, I have to eat a carrot’ and more, ‘I get paid to eat a carrot,’ does that mitigate the effects of stress on healthy eating?”
To determine whether or not money could have a motivating effect, the researchers asked 128 participants to keep track of their daily stress levels, and fruit and vegetable consumption over a period of three weeks. One group received a dollar each time they ate a serving of fruit or vegetables; the other did not. On days when subjects reported feeling stressed, those who were being paid maintained their intake while those who weren’t ate fewer servings of fruits and vegetables.
“Obviously, we had the hypothesis that incentives might buffer the effects of stress and diet, but I didn’t think it would be this clear,” Bryan reportedly said. “I thought there might be a glimmer of something going on, so when we actually saw the effects and the size of the effects, I was pretty stunned.”
The researchers note that rather than relying on self-reporting, which can be subjective and unreliable, further investigation could build on their findings by using “a more objective measurement method” and following subjects over the long-term to determine how enduring their new eating habits are.
Past studies looking at the effectiveness of health-related incentive programs have found that they’re most productive when addressing “ simple, discrete and time-limited ” actions, such as getting vaccinated or visiting the doctor. They’ve proven to be less fruitful when it comes to “complex and entrenched” behaviours like diet and exercise, and smoking.
As Theresa Marteau, the director of the behaviour and health research unit at the University of Cambridge, told Healthy Debate in 2015, whether an incentive program will work or not depends as much on individual circumstances as the nature of the behaviour that it’s aiming to alter. “Where there is most evidence for effectiveness for incentives is in those who tend to be poor, and have mental health problems … including addiction,” she said.
From employer-instigated programs to the now-shuttered mobile app Carrot Rewards, which remunerated users with loyalty points for tracking their activity and taking quizzes, wellness incentives are nothing new. But questions surrounding who is best served by them, their ethics and feasibility still lack definitive answers.
Adding to the confusion and sense of futility, as with feeling the need to bribe a child to eat their broccoli, the underlying message of this study is that fruit and vegetables must taste pretty terrible, since we have to be paid to eat them. In reality, fruit and vegetables are the most diverse, exciting and versatile foods we can eat. While they may increase consumption temporarily, financial incentives do nothing to address the systems and beliefs shaping our access to healthful foods, influencing our desire to shift eating habits, and ultimately undermining our health.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020