This paper reviews some of the evidence that dietary behaviours are, in large part, the consequence of automatic responses to contextual food cues, many of which lead to increased caloric consumption and poor dietary choices. We describe studies that illustrate how these automatic mechanisms underlie eating behaviours, as well as evidence that individuals are subject to inherent cognitive limitations, and mostly lack the capacity to consistently recognize, ignore or resist contextual cues that encourage eating. Restaurants and grocery stores are the primary settings from which people obtain food. These settings are often designed to maximize sales of food by strategically placing and promoting items to encourage impulse purchases. Although a great deal of marketing research is proprietary, this paper describes some of the published studies that indicate that changes in superficial characteristics of food products, including packaging and portion sizes, design, salience, health claims and labelling, strongly influence food choices and consumption in ways for which people generally lack insight. We discuss whether contextual influences might be considered environmental risk factors from which individuals may need the kinds of protections that fall under the mission of public health.
© 2012 The Authors. obesity reviews © 2012 International Association for the Study of Obesity.