The Art and Science of Food – by Liz Forte, Health & Wellness Director

At Eurest, we believe in making food that’s flavourful, mindful and planet-positive. But we know how hard it is to resist the call of comfort food – especially in times of crisis – so we’ve been looking into the psychology behind what we eat, to see how it can help us make better decisions.

Clearly, good intentions aren’t enough. Here in Britain, around 60% of adults say they try to eat healthily, but around 65% of us are overweight or obese. Similarly, we all know what we eat can have a negative impact on the planet, but heavily processed and packaged foods often seem like the easier option.

That’s partly because so much of what we do is subconscious: ‘quick decisions’ or ‘auto-responses’ drive our behaviours day-in and day-out, and shape our lives without conscious consideration. So how can we disrupt the system, interrupt behaviour patterns, and help people make better decisions?  

Last year, we conducted some research with Footprint Intelligence to find out what sort of interventions might help. We found that nudging people in the right direction is far more effective than trying to shame or frighten people into action.

What does that mean in practice? It’s about making subtle changes to everything from the menu to the layout of our restaurants, to make eating well the natural option. That means things like cutting portion size, dropping the really bad-for-you stuff entirely, and highlighting and celebrating those foods that just happen to be healthy.

When it comes to sustainability, our approach has been similarly practical. One of our key initiatives is around reducing waste – a massive issue in the industry and an increasing problem at home. So as well as partnering with brilliant organisations like Fareshare, we’re also leading by example and turning our leftovers into brand new dishes. Our coffee grind granola has become a real favourite, and we’re letting our customers know exactly where it came from, so that they can replicate it in their own kitchens.

Another crucial focus area is plant-based eating. We know that meat production and consumption make a significant contribution to global warming, so moving towards a more plant-based diet should be a priority for all of us. But how do we encourage it?

Dr Brian Cook, a senior researcher at Oxford University and the Health Behaviours lead for the LEAP project (that’s Livestock, Environment and People) highlights the importance of social norms. The thinking here is that we’re more likely to adopt behaviours (such as eating less meat) when we see others doing the same.

In a recent talk, he drew particular attention the idea of ‘dynamic norms’ – in this context, that means focusing less on people who already eat no meat at all, and more on the fact that lots of us are trying to cut down.

This was one of the guiding thoughts behind our own plant-based brand, which was designed with flexitarians in mind (that’s people who are looking to reduce their meat consumption, rather than cutting it out completely). It’s judgement-free, open to all, and takes on plant-based eating one meal at a time. It’s going down a storm.

Our chefs are also working hard to incorporate more plant-based proteins, wholegrains, fruit and veg, nuts and seeds into our menu at large. It’s all about being more mindful about what we serve and bringing our customers along with us.

Which brings us to another key theme: positivity. It’s absolutely fundamental to our approach, because while obesity may be in the news, we firmly believe that sensitive topics like weight are best left away from the table. We recommend focusing on wellbeing instead: the positive aspects of being healthy, the great things about exercise. The way the right food can boost your energy or sharpen your mind. The benefits to mental health.

This last point is the central concern of ‘nutritional psychiatry’, an emerging field that explores the relationship between our minds and bodies. For example, there’s the fact that 95% of serotonin – otherwise known as ‘the happy chemical’ – is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, which suggests a definite link between our digestive systems and our emotions. It’s a relatively new discipline, but one that’s only set to grow in significance as we reckon with the long-term effects of the current crisis.

Then there’s the idea of positive impact. Of purpose. Of doing some good, for someone else. One small silver lining we’ve witnessed in recent times is the sense of community that’s emerged. It seems that we all want to be part of something bigger, and making a difference is a key motivator in itself.

When it comes to food, our research shows that people are increasingly choosing to support social enterprises – organisations that reinvest or donate their profits to create positive change – as a way to exercise their consumer power. From coffee beans to macaroons, if a product does someone else some good, that gives a new dimension of appeal.

Here at Eurest, we on the journey to shift our focus and increase our work with such organisations. Our goal is to help our customers eat in a way that benefits their health, their communities, and the planet we share.