New Study Finds Nature Exposure Encourages Healthier Food Choices

In an era of increasing urbanization, a new study reveals that experiencing nature, even as simple as walking in a park or viewing photos of natural settings, can lead to healthier food choices.

In an era of increasing urbanization, a new study reveals that experiencing nature, even as simple as walking in a park or viewing photos of natural settings, can lead to healthier food choices.

This research, conducted by a team of scientists led by Maria Langlois, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University, establishes a direct link between nature exposure and healthier eating habits, marking a significant advancement in understanding environmental impacts on dietary decisions.

“Our hope is that this work can help us develop a greater understanding of how our environments influence our choices, and how we can construct an environment that is more conducive to beneficial outcomes in the long run, such as good health and well-being,” explained Langlois, the study’s first author.

The study’s findings highlight that exposure to nature increases the value people place on health over taste or other attributes when making food choices. Langlois and her team found data supporting their hypothesis of an implicit connection between nature and health.

Nature Boosts Healthy Food Choices

Langlois credits the inspiration for her research to a charity bike ride. During the ride, she noticed that both she and her teammates craved healthier food when they were in natural settings compared to urban environments. This observation led her to pursue a Ph.D. study with Pierre Chandon, a food marketing researcher and professor at INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau, France.

Previous studies had established an association between closeness to nature and well-being without delving into the mechanisms and causes. While there was some evidence that nature experiences led to healthier food choices, these studies often relied on self-reported craving questionnaires, lacked control populations, or were inconclusive.

To address these gaps, Langlois and her team gathered data from hundreds of participants across five studies in three countries over seven years. They examined food choices after both real-world and virtual nature experiences.

In one study conducted in France, participants took a twenty-minute walk either through a large green park or a city, taking photos along the way. Afterward, they selected snacks from a buffet as compensation for their “photography” task. The nature walkers chose healthier snacks than the urban walkers.

Real-World and Virtual Nature Exposure

To determine if viewing nature photos had the same effect as real-world immersion, the researchers conducted an online study with American participants. Participants were asked to imagine they had won a holiday, with one group shown a photo of a hotel room with a natural view, another group shown an urban view, and a control group shown closed curtains. Those exposed to the nature view made healthier food choices compared to both the urban and control groups.

“By incorporating a control condition in our work, this research shows that it is not exposure to urban environments that is driving unhealthy food choices, but really exposure to natural environments that is driving healthier food choices,” Langlois explained.

Subconscious Links Between Nature and Health

The researchers suggest that a subconscious link between nature and health drives these healthier food choices. To investigate this, they used the implicit association task, a test that detects subconscious associations between mental representations of objects in memory.

Participants were faster at pairing health-related words (e.g., beneficial, fitness, nutritious) with nature-related words (e.g., countryside, forest, lake) than with city-related words (e.g., building, concrete, highway).

This research has practical implications for various groups, including consumers, parents, schools, and employers. For instance, employers could incorporate green spaces for employees or display images of nature in cafeterias, and schools could do the same to promote healthier eating habits.

With almost 70% of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, this research provides valuable insights for urban planners.

“Having the ability to access nature is an important factor for public health and population well-being, and it should be considered when designing cities,” Langlois remarked. “Additionally, urban planning and design should pay particular attention to underserved areas that often lack safe, accessible nature spaces and are also food deserts, depleted of fresh, healthy foods.”

By highlighting the wellbeing benefits of nature, this study may also encourage environmental conservation efforts, as people recognize the integral role nature plays in promoting health.