Background: As obesity levels increase, opportunistic behaviour change counselling from primary care clinicians in consultations about healthy eating is ever more important. However, little is known about the approaches clinicians take with patients.
Aim: To describe the content of simulated consultations on healthy eating in primary care, and compare this with the content of smoking cessation consultations.
Design and setting: Qualitative study of 23 audiotaped simulated healthy eating and smoking cessation consultations between an actor and primary care clinicians (GPs and nurses) within a randomised controlled trial looking at behaviour change counselling.
Method: Consultations were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim, then analysed inductively using thematic analysis. A thematic framework was developed by all authors and applied to the data. The content of healthy eating consultations was contrasted with that given for smoking cessation.
Results: There was a lack of consistency and clarity when clinicians discussed healthy eating compared with smoking; in smoking cessation consultations, the content was clearer to both the clinician and patient. There was a lack of specificity about what dietary changes should be made, how changes could be achieved, and how progress could be monitored. Barriers to change were addressed in more depth within the smoking cessation consultations than within the healthy eating encounters.
Conclusion: At present, dietary counselling by clinicians in primary care does not typically contain consistent, clear suggestions for specific change, how these could be achieved, and how progress would be monitored. This may contribute to limited uptake and efficacy of dietary counselling in primary care.