Green Views for Healthier Diets

An image of a verdant forest glade or a tranquil pasture. Natural scenes typically conjure up positive emotions and a sense of wellbeing for most individuals, but could they also influence them to make healthier food choices? The answer, according to our new article, just published in Nature’s new journal Communications Psychology, is yes.

Our studies, which exposed people to natural or urban environments before asking them to make snack or lunch choices, found that those who were asked to take a walk in a park or were exposed to natural scenes picked the healthier options from a menu. Meanwhile, those who took a walk in a city street, or were shown views of city skylines, or even simply closed curtains, were much less inclined to opt for healthy dishes or snacks. 

Natural links

A growing body of research is looking at the connections between health and nature. From the mental and physical boost derived from forest bathing to patients in hospital rooms with a view over green spaces recovering faster from surgery, many studies now highlight the positive health benefits of exposure to nature. 

While these benefits have been well documented in many arenas, the effects on food choice have remained largely unknown. Our research bridges this gap by investigating how exposure to nature influences food consumption decisions. Could this hold the answer as to why people living closer to nature tend to be healthier?

The idea for this research emerged after one of us (Maria) noticed how she and her teammates taking part in a 7200-km charity bike ride gravitated towards healthier, unprocessed foods while in natural environments. Maria then turned this observation into a series of rigorous field and online studies she incorporated into her dissertation for her PhD in marketing at INSEAD.

Walk in the park

The first step in the research was to send participants off for a 20-minute walk. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to take a stroll through the Parc Montsouris in Paris, while the other half took a comparable stroll through adjacent city streets. At the end of the walk, the participants were then invited to sample a snack buffet, featuring a range of healthy and less healthy foods.

Regardless of the route they took, people ate about the same number of servings. However, those who took the walk through the park chose healthier food when compared to those who had taken the urban walk. In fact, healthier choices accounted for 70 percent of the servings among the park walkers compared to 39 percent for those who walked in the urban setting.

Room with a view

To study this phenomenon further, we conducted a series of more controlled experiments where we placed people in a ‘hotel room’ with a specific window view. For some, the view was of a green pasture, while others overlooked a city skyline. As a control, some studies also included an option where the view was obscured by closed curtains. 

Participants were then asked to choose from an in-room service menu featuring a list of healthy and unhealthy snacks. As with the previous experiment, we found that those who had a view of the park opted for the healthier options. Interestingly, those who had an urban view or just the closed curtains both made less healthy choices. 

Credit: pixabay / Leonhard Niederwimmer
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