Science - November 12, 2015

Golden rules of diet get a makeover

Text:
Rob Ramaker

Dutch government dietary guidelines have long been presented as a pie chart showing five food groups essential for health. The ‘Schijf van Vijf ’or ‘Disc of Five’. Now the trendy food blogs, glossy cookbooks and charismatic food gurus of today are making this icon look outdated. How do we bring it up to date?

1953. Zeeland is struck by disastrous flooding. The Dutch population – 10.5 million – is segregated by religious denomination and goes to church on Sundays. Scientists unravel the structure of DNA and develop a vaccine against polio. Stalin dies, Mount Everest is conquered for the first time and the first James Bond book, Casino Royale, comes out. And in the Netherlands the ‘Disc of Five’ first sees the light of day, the brainchild of the information office of the Dutch Nutrition Council.

Ever since, generations of Dutch people have grown up with the Schijf van Vijf, an image used on posters and fliers in a communication strategy for making clear to people what makes for a healthy diet. The pie chart has been adjusted regularly but in essence it has stayed the same. The most recent update was about 10 years ago. That period saw the rise of the social media and of diet gurus, bloggers and salespeople, with a cacophony of different ideas about diet, most of them more colourful and varied than the restrained disc.

If it is to stay relevant, then, the disc needs an update, agrees Gerda Feunekes, director of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre (Voedingscentrum.nl). And the time is ripe following last week’s publication of the new official dietary guidelines, based on the current scientific consensus on what constitutes a healthy diet. In the coming months the Nutrition Centre will be translating these guidelines into a brand new disc, to be presented in March.

Hipsters

The new version needs to appeal to a broader segment of the Dutch population, says Feunekes. Fewer and fewer people identify with a diet of ‘meat, potatoes and veg’; nor are dairy produce and bread so automatically part of many people’s diets as they used to be. The Netherlands has become more multicultural and even among the native Dutch, Mediterranean, Asian and other formerly exotic cuisines are now perfectly normal. ‘So we want people with a variety of diets to see their eating habits reflected in the new disc. Whether their diet is vegetarian, Turkish or Moroccan.’

Not every group will be easy to appeal to, says Noelle Aarts, personal professor in the Strategic Communication chair group at Wageningen University. Take hipsters, for whom food is a big part of their identity. Aarts sees big differences here between herself and her daughter, for instance. ‘I eat quite a varied, healthy diet, pretty much the Schijf van Vijf,’ she says, ‘whereas my daughter eats probiotic yoghurt and quinoa.’ Hipsters talk about food a lot and love certain food products. The Nutrition Centre should not underestimate how deep those differences go, says Aarts. Powerful norms are at work in subcultures of that kind. ‘In those circles you can hardly eat a sandwich anymore.’

So it is better not to approach people who are so preoccupied with food with generalized advice. Marijke Berkenpas, dietician and a blogger at iamafoodie.nl, agrees. She says we should not underestimate people’s interest. Her readers do not want to be told that eating a handful of nuts a day is healthy; they want to know what kinds of nuts there are, what the differences between them are and why one of them is the healthiest. So be specific and give details. Another point Berkenpas makes is that positive communication works best. No wagging of fingers but appealing examples, preferably with glamorous photos. ‘So don’t tell people to avoid jars of pasta sauce so as to reduce their salt consumption, but show them how you make your own delicious pasta sauce.’

Berkenpas is therefore not in favour of immediately shooting down every food hype. She thinks the Nutrition Centre would do better to embrace healthy trends. She didn’t understand, for example, why the centre dismissed superfoods in such strong terms. That caused a lot of irritation among foodies, whereas superfoods – all the hoo-hah aside – are healthy in themselves. Feunekes of the Nutrition Centre begs to differ. Superfoods such as goji berries and chia seeds are harmful because an obsession with them can create the impression that a healthy diet is impossible without very expensive exotic products. And she believes the centre’s strong stand has worked. ‘It has gone a lot quieter around superfoods.’ The Nutrition Centre will therefore continue to oppose hypes which go too far.

Digital tools

The enthusiasm is shared, however, when it comes to digital media. Through the interactivity of social media and her blog, Berkenpas sees straightaway what catches on and what doesn’t. There can be surprises. ‘A fellow blogger wrote a piece about ten healthy snacks. That is quite simple but it was read and googled a lot.’ That is how you find out what the issues are for people. Feunekes too thinks the Nutrition Centre should make intensive use of digital media to get involved in ongoing discussions, amongst other reasons.

And that is already happening. There is no action on Instagram yet but on Facebook the centre has a community of nearly 30,000 followers. Individual members of the centre tweet and engage with the press. In June diet and health expert Astrid Postma-Smeets joined RLT’s Late Night show to refute the claims of Canadian author Alissa Hamilton in Got Milked? The Nutrition Centre also launched a range of tools and apps with which people can, for example, assess their eating habits and get feedback. With success. The Eetmeter (Eat Meter) has 700,000 active visitors. Feunekes has every intention of taking these developments further. Digital tools are the way to go so that everyone gets access to much more personalized dietary advice.

Behaviour

Feunekes’ main ambition with the new version of the disc is to ensure people adopt healthier behaviour. That is more ambitious than it sounds, as human behaviour is habit-driven and very difficult to steer. So something has to be done with the Schijf van Vijf, says professor of Strategic Communication Noelle Aarts. She feels the Nutrition Centre currently focusses too much on providing factual information. ‘That needs to be done but the problem is that lack of information is rarely the stumbling block for behavioural change.’

The provision of information targets our cognition while much of our behaviour is socially determined. We are well aware that something is fattening or unhealthy but we don’t manage to stay away from it, especially in an environment in which we are constantly tempted to eat unhealthy products. ‘That is why fat children often come from fat families.’ The main group you reach with more information are motivated professionals, says Aarts. And all they get out of it is the confirmation that they are on the right track.

You cannot change human behaviour directly, says Aarts. At the most you can motivate people in the hope that they will decide for themselves to change their diets. To do this you have to go to the people. Aarts: ‘You have to find out what motivates people to behave the way they do.’

Nudges

Feunekes is well aware of the limitations of providing information. When it comes to dietary choices the crucial factors are taste, price and convenience. ‘Health and sustainability are important on a different level.’ So behavioural scientists and consumers are intensively involved in the development of the new Schijf van Vijf. Feunekes wants to try and combine long-term goals such as health with immediate motivators such as taste and convenience. Making sure the healthy choice is the easiest choice. This can be done in a variety of ways. One way is to remove unhealthy or unsustainable choices, or at least to make them more difficult. She gives the example of supermarkets which only sell sustainable bananas. That forces consumers to make a sustainable choice. Decisions can be steered more subtly through nudges in the right direction. These are small changes which have an influence without limiting choice. For example, you can place fruit instead of sweets near the till at the supermarket. Or you can make sure most of the products in school canteens are healthy. The Nutrition Centre is collaborating with companies on this. Not that it receives any money from the companies, but supermarkets receive advice on how to help consumers make healthy choices. The Nutrition Centre is also trying to motivate food producers and up-and-coming food professionals to make healthier and more sustainable products. And that is something the centre will continue to do, says Feunekes, even if it is sometimes criticized for listening to the food industry too much. This criticism comes from a small group of very vocal critics and Feunekes sees no future in responding to this group’s demands with a more activist approach. ‘We are not a lobby and naming and shaming is not our way of doing things.’ Nevertheless, claims Feunekes, the Nutrition Centre is not afraid of condemning unhealthy initiatives. It spoke out publically against sweets dispensers in places like hospitals and buses, for instance.

Obesogenic environment

The biggest health gains can be made with the Schijf van Vijf in the group that is least exposed to health messages at present: people with low levels of education and those on low incomes. According to Aarts it is precisely here that you need to look for the networks and the community.

You cannot decide what is good for a group anymore. You have to involve people so that they can tell you what they need in order to make the right choices.’ Edith Feskens, Wageningen professor of Nutrition and Health over the Lifecourse, has a lot of experience with interventions in this group. She notices that people are eager for practical guidelines. ‘You must not just show them the Schijf van Vijf  but really get to work with it.’ This could mean very basic things like guiding people around the supermarket, pointing out the best things to buy and telling them how to prepare them.

Yet Feskens thinks you can please people most by changing their social environment. ‘Research shows that we are exposed to food temptations 70 to 100 times a day. You can resist that for a long time but at some point you give in.’ Feskens thinks the Nutrition Centre should campaign for a less ‘obesogenic’ environment. ‘Restrictions on food advertising, for instance, or even a ban on advertisements targeting children.’

No revolution

Yet the new Schijf van Vijf will not preach revolution, says Feskens. And that may be for the best. The Nutrition Centre is proud of its record of not getting caught up in hypes and that reserve is one of its strengths. ‘In a world full of confusion about diet, you can trust that what the Nutrition Centre publishes makes sense.’ Recent research by market research company GfK shows that the majority of the Dutch agree with this. The vast majority see the Schijf van Vijf as their main source of nutritional information and are not interested in dietary hypes and gurus. So don’t expect a dramatic transformation of the Schijf van Vijf next March, says Feunekes. Our country may be becoming more diverse, more digital and more ‘hip’ but we’ll always have the good old Schijf van Vijf.

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Reactions 2

  • ppp

    leuk de schijf van 5

  • Neli

    I hope the new version will have an updated view on fats (saturated fats are not as bad as portrayed, margarine is quite bad on the other hand) including a better picture (olive oil instead of corn oil); I also hope it will include a much stricter stand on refined carbohydrates and added sugars, but also a stand against sweeteners (including stevia). In short, I hope it will be more in line with eating of whole foods and that nuts and pulses will receive the necessary importance.


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