Ever walked down a street and felt an almost overwhelming desire to buy pizza? Do you find it difficult to walk past the confectionary aisle in the supermarket without picking up a bar of chocolate?
You are not alone.
Everyone acts on food preferences picked up during a lifetime of family meals, school dinners, TV adverts and other influences from the environment we live in.
Food preferences start to develop in the womb. They continue to be learned during the first 1,000 days and can be remarkably stable for the rest of our lives.
But today around 61% of the UK population is overweight or obese. We know from our research that obesity is strongly associated with nine cancers.
Despite increasing awareness of the links between lifestyle factors like diet, weight, physical activity and cancer risk, as a nation we are failing to eat healthily. Governments have campaigned to influence the food decisions people make, they have also adopted policies aimed at making it easier to eat the right foods.
But we are no closer to reversing rising obesity rates in the UK. And we know that people face an uphill task in shaking off unhealthy eating habits.
Food preferences, once learned, can be hard to change.
That’s why we are advocating a smarter approach that puts food preferences to the fore of anti-obesity food policies. Today we publish a paper in the Lancet that sets out the types of measures that will help reduce the impact of unhealthy food habits.
We are urging policy makers to acknowledge that the preferences people develop are, to a large extent, learned. They are learned at school, at the family dinner table and among friends. Anything that can be done to intervene and encourage the formation of healthier food choices will pay dividends.
Consider traffic light food labelling, a policy that World Cancer Research Fund strongly supports. We know that traffic light labelling works well for people who are conscious of the foods they eat and who want a healthy diet. But for others it’s less relevant. You are less likely to act on the information included on a traffic light food label if your food preferences aren’t healthy in the first place.
A smart policy on obesity would recognise that the food preferences that people develop have a huge bearing on what they eat and how likely they are to act on specific policies like labelling.
What is to be done?
A good place to start is with infants and young children. If we can help kids learn to enjoy healthy eating, they have a better chance of taking that into adolescence and adulthood.
Second, we have to make sure that the environment we live in supports healthier options, particularly in the way foods are priced and presented.
Finally, lets make it easy for people who want to eat well. Particularly in disadvantaged communities where people often want to eat well but are priced out of the healthy options available.
None of this is rocket science, but it is vital that policy makers take on board the fact that the policies they create have to work in an environment where people have already developed food preferences
We also need patience: creating a generation of unhealthy eaters took time, we can turn obesity around, but it won’t happen overnight.