Skip links and keyboard navigation

Willpower vs. the world: how healthy choices depend on healthy places

A woman makes her selection from a vending machine stocked with sugary drinks and food
Is healthy eating just a matter of willpower, or are there other factors at play?

Every day we make lots of choices about what to eat and drink. But did you know that the places where we live, work, study, visit, and relax play a powerful role in the choices we make?

When it comes to foods and drinks, our local food environment has a big impact. Our food environment is a sum of all the different places where we can access food and drinks. It’s the local supermarket, the fast food outlets on the way to work, food home delivery services, vending machines at the train station, canteens, the cinema lolly shop – every place has an influence on our choices.

Being motivated is an important part of making changes to support our health. But all the willpower in the world can’t overcome the fact that when you visit the corner store you have to walk past three aisles of unhealthy food to find the one small shelf of fruit and veg. Despite our best intentions, reducing our sugary drink intake is made harder when there’s a soft drink vending machine in your workplace lunch room. When healthy foods and drinks are less visible, they’re chosen less often.

More and more, health and wellbeing is shaped by whether our surroundings support us to make and sustain healthy choices.

The fridge experiment: unhealthy messages hidden in plain sight

Many advertising messages are loud and impossible to miss – huge billboards, brash radio ads, bright sales signs. But other messages can be so subtle or commonplace, we may not even realise they exist.

Here’s an experiment that might explain it better. The next time you visit a convenience store or pass a vending machine, take 10 seconds to look at the drinks fridge. Ask yourself:

  • What drinks are at eye level?
  • What drinks are on the bottom shelf?
  • Is there advertising on the fridge itself?

You mightn’t have noticed before, but many drinks displays are covered in sugary drinks advertising. These same sugary drinks will likely be in the most prominent position – the shelves at eye level. And right down the bottom is where you’re most likely to find healthier drink choices.

Very few of us would normally stop and assess a drinks display. But this simple experiment can show us just how widespread less healthy options are, and how we may be subconsciously influenced to choose them.

It’s not just about drinks fridges – our ability to choose healthy options depend on all parts of the food environment around us. Food and drink companies understand this, and some use a range of strategies to influence our choices.

A neon sign reads 'Open 24 Hours

Creating healthier food environments for Queensland communities

What if things were flipped around? What if healthy food and drinks were easy to see and access, not out of sight and mind? That’s when healthy choices can become easier choices.

Many forward-thinking communities and organisations are working to transform Queensland’s food environments.

For example, Queensland’s schools are making positives changes by increasing the healthy food and drink choices in tuckshops. This helps our kids to develop important skills around eating for health. What’s more, it mirrors what we’re teaching in the classroom – that we need healthy food to learn, grow and thrive.

Queensland’s hospitals and health services are making positive changes too. With many cafes, vending machines other outlets selling food and drinks in health facilities, they are an important part of our community’s food environments. Hospitals and health care facilities exist to keep our communities healthy – not only the patients, but also the thousands of staff and millions of visitors that attend the facilities each year. It makes sense that they provide easy access to nutritious foods and drinks.

That’s why in Queensland Hospital and Health Services, healthy drinks take centre stage. It’s easier than ever to access healthy drinks like water, plain milk, and 99% fruit and vegetable juices. Other drinks are still available in smaller serving sizes.

This reflects what we already know: that soft drinks and other beverages with lots of added sugar aren’t great for us. Our hospitals should be places that help us make good decisions for our health.

Positive changes for a healthier future

Every part of our food environment shapes our access to nutritious food and drinks.

Improving our food environments – whether it be in schools, hospitals, or the convenience store’s drinks fridge –  will help us improve the health of our community.

Last updated: 25 June 2019