Wetenschap - 12 maart 2015

Wanted: the archetypal healthy eater

Rob Ramaker

Wageningen scientists have made a first attempt at profiling the archetypal healthy eater. They are trawling this ‘angel’s’ lifestyle for strategies to help us all eat more healthily.

In an article published in the journal Appetite, PhD candidates Emily Swan and Laura Bouwman, assistant professor at Health and Society, show that there are five characteristics possessed by healthy eaters with striking regularity. For example, on average women eat more healthily, as do people who cohabit. The sense of living a meaningful and orderly life also has a positive effect. As does the idea that you are independently capable of eating healthily. Finally, maintaining a balance in your diet is an important factor.

The experiment used data collected from 703 participants in a health panel. They completed regular questionnaires about their dietary behaviour and health, and were weighed. The researchers had test subjects fill in other questionnaires about their behaviour and personality traits. This gave them the opportunity to see whether some traits were more prevalent among healthy eaters. The identified characteristics are too broad to translate directly into practical health tips. And so for Bouwman the study is only the first step. In a subsequent experiment, participants will be interviewed in detail. ‘Healthy eaters will be asked to record their life story,’ she says. ‘Which moments in their life history caused them to eat so healthily now?’

When Bouwman has a better grasp of how healthy behaviour develops over a lifetime, she wants to get to work with communication experts. ‘How can we use our findings to bring about more effective communication on healthy eating?’ Zooming in on positive exceptions and how they have arisen is part of Bouwman’s specialist field, salutogenesis. Scientists using this approach don’t search for risk factors; things that have made people fat and unhealthy. ‘By looking only at risks, you miss part of the picture,’ says Bouwman. ‘Looking at factors that stimulate healthy eating completes the picture.’ The findings do not mean, however, that the government should stop getting healthy food into supermarkets and should leave the entire matter to individual citizens. Bouwman is keen to point this out. ‘I believe that a healthy environment is a precondition for a healthy life,’ she says. ‘It’s just not enough, that’s all.’