To succeed at the diet game, new research suggests a "CAN"-do attitude may be more helpful than relying on willpower or education.
After reviewing more than 100 studies, Cornell University researchers found three things help people choose healthier foods. The food must be convenient (C), attractive (A) and normal (N), or CAN.
The research, published in the May issue of Psychology & Marketing, suggests that the CAN approach is more effective than telling people what they can't eat or asking them to rely on willpower to resist tempting foods, the study authors said.
"Willpower works for some, but only about 5 to 10 percent of the population," said lead researcher Brian Wansink, who is director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab. "About 95 percent of diets fail."
A typical person makes upwards of 200 food-related decisions a day, according to the study. That means the majority of food decisions are quick and instinctive.
Most people don't have time to sit and analyze what they are eating and whether or not they are full. Instead, people need to rearrange their environment so that it works for them, Wansink said.
The CAN approach arranges the environment to help people be more successful at choosing healthier food options, he said.
Penny Kris-Etherton, a registered dietician and professor of nutrition at Penn State University, agrees. "From a practical perspective, the recommendation to make healthier foods easiest to choose and consume is right on target," she said. "This is what we need to do to make healthy eating simple and the default choice, so that it is difficult to eat unhealthfully."
So how do you put the principles of CAN into practice? First, make nutritious food choices convenient. At home, for instance, Wansink suggests placing a fruit bowl within two feet of where people walk by it. And have at least two options available -- apples and bananas, for example.
The researchers also suggested keeping the fruit bowl near your car keys. That way, you might remember to grab an apple or other fruit as you head out the door. Later, you'll have a healthy and convenient option if you get hungry while you're out.
In addition to being more convenient, the fruit bowl is also a more attractive option compared with having fruit in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, where it's out of sight and out of mind. The researchers said that making food choices attractive could have to do with how food looks. It might also refer to some other factor. For example, price might make a particular food more attractive.
Making healthy choices easily accessible and always there also helps make them more normal, according to the study. And, as a food becomes more normal and accessible, it may become a potentially more popular choice. When choosing an apple is convenient and normal, people may become inclined to select an apple over a less accessible cookie, the study suggested.
Influencing which behaviors are considered normal and popular is an easy, quick and productive way to change consumer behavior, according to the study authors.
The CAN approach has been successful in schools, as well. Wansink showed in previous studies that simply placing regular milk, instead of chocolate milk, at the front of the cooler (convenient), in a shapely bottle (attractive) and giving it at least half the cooler space (normal) increased regular milk consumption in students by 30 to 60 percent.
In making certain foods more normal, Wansink said that consumers need to get out of the mindset that only fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy.
"People have deceived themselves that fruits and vegetables have to be fresh," he said. "Canned and frozen have as much nutrition, if not more." And canned and frozen can be more convenient. If you still lean toward fresh, try ready-cut, prepackaged produce, he suggested.
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As far as those less-healthy food options? The CAN approach works in reverse for them. Make them less convenient, less attractive and less normal, he said.
In the Wansink household, for example, less nutritious snacks are kept in the laundry room.
"Most U.S. households have snacks in four to five different cupboards in the kitchen," Wansink explained. "We keep our less-healthy snacks in the laundry room and most of them are probably out of date by now."