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Behavioral Economic Approaches to Childhood Obesity Prevention Nutrition Policies: A Social Ecological Perspective


Childhood obesity is a significant public health concern associated with the development of the leading causes of death. Dietary factors largely contribute to childhood obesity, but prevention interventions targeting these factors have reported relatively small effect sizes. One potential explanation for the ineffectiveness of prevention efforts is lack of theoretical grounding. Behavioral economic (BE) theory describes how people choose to allocate their resources and posits that some children place higher value on palatable foods (relative reinforcing value of food) and have difficulty delaying food rewards (delay discounting). These seemingly individual-level decision making processes are influenced by higher-level variables (e.g., environment/policy) as described by the social ecological model. The purpose of this manuscript is to provide a theoretical review of policy-level childhood obesity prevention nutrition initiatives informed by BE. We reviewed two policy-level approaches: (1) incentives-/price manipulation-based policies (e.g., sugary drink tax, SNAP pilot) and (2) healthful choices as defaults (Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act/National School Lunch Program, advertising regulations, default items). We review current literature as well as its limitations and future directions. Exploration of BE theory applications for nutrition policies may help to inform future theoretically grounded policy-level public health interventions.

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Correspondence to Molly Cory.

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Fig. 1
figure 1

A Social Ecological Model of Child Nutrition Policies Informed by Behavioral Economics. Behavioral-economic informed policies influence child dietary choices by targeting each level of the social ecological model. These policies affect the foods distributed or marketed by the food industry, altering family and neighborhood access, which affects child dietary choices. Individual-level factors including relative reinforcing value of food and delay discounting are the driving mechanisms that determine the effectiveness of policy at each level of the model, because dietary choices are ultimately decided by sufficient shifts in the environment to increase or decrease reinforcement of healthful foods.

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Cory, M., Loiacono, B., Clark Withington, M. et al. Behavioral Economic Approaches to Childhood Obesity Prevention Nutrition Policies: A Social Ecological Perspective. Perspect Behav Sci 44, 317–332 (2021).

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  • childhood obesity
  • behavioral economics
  • social ecological model
  • nutrition policy
  • prevention
  • health policy