How do consumers rationalise unhealthy food purchases?

Posted by James Ferre on 2nd June 2009

Consumers eat a double hamburger for lunch then carefully munch on a few lettuce leaves for dinner. Some go for a run and light up a cigarette as they recover. Others choose a low-fat meal and wash it down with three beers. Strange? Not really. Perhaps not ideal behaviour… but it is surprisingly normal.

Market research firm Synovate conducted its second global ‘Healthy Living’ survey on health, weight control and attitudes to food and exercise, and discovered that, when it comes to food and weight, people are not always logical.

The pizza paradox

More than a third of all respondents across the 12 markets surveyed said they like fast food too much to give it up. But many make themselves feel better by paying for their actions in other ways, with 37% saying they exercise in order to compensate for other bad habits.

“These attitudes may not make complete sense, but when it comes to food, health and weight management, people are inherently contradictory,” Steve Garton, Synovate’s Executive Director of Media, said. “We did the same survey in late 2007 and it seems people are no less confused about food now than they were then. Not only do people’s attitudes and behaviours conflict across cultures, they also differ within the individuals themselves.”

Indeed, the attitudinal questions posed by the survey were the clincher in realising just how mixed up people can be about food. An overall 55% agreed that they eat what they want, when they want. Yet 71% watch their food carefully and strive to be healthy.

“It all comes back to whether we think of food as pleasure or food as fuel… and it seems that most people vacillate between the two,” said Garton.

This year’s number one fast food nation…

Everyone knows that the US and the UK consume large amounts of fast food. Last year’s number one fast food nation was the UK.

Around 45% of Brits agree that they like the taste of fast food too much to give it up, barely surpassing the US (where 44% agreed). But this year both nations have been resoundingly trounced in terms of fast food addiction.

In a surprise result, a hefty 68% of Bulgarians said they could not give up their fast food. Stoyan Mihaylov, Managing Director of Synovate in Bulgaria, says the country, which was not part of last year’s survey, is in the grips of fast food passion.

“Compared to mature fast food markets like the US and the UK, Bulgarians still find fast food chains a novelty and, to some degree, quite trendy. There are also limited convenient lunchtime choices in the cities so this is a normal lunch for grab-and-go office workers,” he advised. “What’s more, there’s no sign of this consumption slowing down.”

The 2009 results saw the UK and the US draw even, each with 44% agreeing they cannot give up fast food. Greg Chu, Senior Vice President of Synovate Healthcare in North America, says that Americans have a love-hate relationship with tasty and convenient fast food.

“Even while eating fast food, Americans have it in the back of their minds that it’s not the healthiest choice – but that’s not what they are focused on at that moment. The draw is convenience and taste, which is all that really matters when you are hungry and on the go.”

Least susceptible to the taste of fast food were the Swedes and the Malaysians, each with only one in five people agreeing that they ‘like the taste of fast food too much to give it up’.

Tackling the bulge

The top responses across all 12 markets were increase physical activity (45%), reduce food intake (41%), change types of food eaten (27%), and avoid sugar (26%).

The countries most likely to respond to weight gain with physical activity are the United Arab Emirates or UAE (69%) and China (65%).

Darryl Andrew, CEO of Synovate China, says pure pragmatism plays a large role in this approach.

“In China, people love their food with a passion and, like many cultures, the day is arranged around meal times. Popular greetings still ask if a person has eaten meat or rice that day,” he noted. “In this environment, it’s actually much easier to lose a little weight by moving more. Ceasing to eat as much, or changing the types of food eaten, would interfere with life too much for most Chinese.”

Those who were most likely to tackle tubbiness by reducing food intake were the UAE (56%), Brazil (56%), the US (55%), Canada (53%), Spain and the UK (both 52%).

The Bridget Jones effect

When Renée Zellweger, an American actress, signed on to play the very British Bridget Jones in the 2001 movie, the producers may have been making more of a statement than they realised… it turns out the two groups who are most likely to link food to mood, emotionally eating their way through life, are American and British women.

An overall 29% of respondents across all 12 markets agreed ‘I tend to eat junk food when I am feeling down’, comprised of 34% women and 24% men. This jumped to 55% of all British women and 54% of their American sisters.

“There is a reason Bridget Jones was – and still is – so popular. It perfectly captures the ongoing battle that British women have with food and mood. The knee jerk reaction to bad news, or even boredom, is often a cup of tea and something sweet to wash it down. Similarly, a bad day can be made a whole lot better with a hefty glass or two of Chardonnay in the evening,” says Jill Telford, CEO of Synovate UK.

The survey also showed that the UK was the biggest drinking nation of the 12 markets surveyed. Twenty-seven per cent of Britons admitted to drinking alcohol on a daily or near-daily basis, comprised of 33% men and 21% women.

Additionally, an overall 30% of Brits smoke daily, comprised of 33% women and 27% men.

The weighty issue of obesity

Is obesity the Government’s fault? Is it society’s? Who’s to blame?

Most people firmly place the responsibility for obesity with the individual. A quarter of all respondents blame unhealthy food choices and another 23% say it is due to unhealthy food habits, like eating at irregular hours.

“Nearly half of all respondents blame food choices rather than sedentary lifestyles, again bringing us back to the complicated role food plays in our lives,” remarked Synovate’s Steve Garton.

The third most popular choice was ‘genetics’, meaning 18% believe it cannot be helped, while a further 18% think obesity is due to lack of exercise.

Eleven percent nominated ‘no self-discipline’ as the reason for the world’s growing obesity issues, with more people in the UK (19%) and the US (17%) saying this than anywhere else.