What Is the Main Idea?

Sugar-sweetened beverages are often consumed for hydration over healthier drinks. How the drink is represented and experiences around it are known to direct an individual’s choice. However, understanding the psychology behind this consumption and how to use it to potentially encourage healthy behavior is what we discuss here. It is based on the freely available article “The Psychology of Desire and Implications for Healthy Hydration” in the journal Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism.

What Else Can You Learn?

Through examples you will learn how different factors affect consumers’ choices. This includes features like taste, texture, social context, and how short-term satisfaction is perceived more than long-term health benefits. You will also understand what all this means to you when switching to healthier hydration choices.

Issues with Consuming Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Sugar-sweetened beverages are drinks that are sweetened with different kinds of sugar like raw sugar, brown sugar, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, and many others.

As many probably know, consuming sugar-sweetened beverages has multiple issues – from affecting dental health to adding empty calories. These beverages have been correlated with weight gain, issues with metabolism, type 2 diabetes, and other heart-related issues. In fact, interventions to reduce consumption have been shown to help in preventing weight gain.

Despite this, the consumption of these beverages has been high. For example, in the USA, half the adults and two-thirds of the children consume at least 1 sugar-sweetened beverage per day. Even the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend drinking beverages with no added sugar. Obviously, a recommendation is not sufficient. The question arises about how we can get people to make healthier choices. Before that, we need to understand what makes people choose sugar-sweetened beverages.

What Makes Any Drink Attractive?

Among adolescents, drinking these beverages is often accompanied by other behaviors like watching TV and consuming a high amount of fast food. Pricing, availability, and exposure to soda commercials are other contributing factors to consuming these drinks. Adults and adolescents drink sugar-sweetened beverages also because they find them tasty, it quenches their thirst and due to habit formation.

While these are the correlations and reasons for consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, the details of the psychology or cognitive reasoning behind this behavior is a question that arises.

What Is the Thought Process Behind Consuming Sugar-Sweetened Beverages?

A theory in cognitive sciences is that when food or drinks are consumed, the incident is stored in the memory as a complete picture starting from the taste, texture, and appearance to the feeling it creates and external factors like the surroundings and the people present. Subsequently, when the same food or drink is seen or consumed again in a different scenario, the mind can recreate some of the past experiences even though it might be absent, which leads to an anticipated pleasure. In other words, just viewing a soft drink or an attractive food like chips that was consumed in an earlier context can lead to the anticipated pleasure (including salivation) and desire to consume.

To further understand the consuming behavior, researchers asked the participants to list “typical features” of the food or drink they are consuming. For alcoholic drinks, which were highly represented, the social context was most relevant. Sugar-sweetened beverages were highly consumed, with the typical features giving a sense of reward simulation.

For sugary beverages, the typical features that were highlighted were “sweet, cold, bubbly, nice” whereas water is described as “boring, convenient, clean and available”. Interestingly, “thirst-quenching” was described more for water than sugary drinks. In general, the participants of the research did not describe any drinks for their health benefit. Another interesting fact is that although in the research they only simulated the drink but didn’t give actual drinks, most people went for sugary drinks based on desire and anticipation from experience.

How Can We Use This Knowledge about Psychology to Get People to Switch to Healthy Drinking?

Experiences and anticipation play a heavy role in choosing a drink. So, for those who drink sugar-sweetened beverages regularly, the experience makes them want to consume them again. How can this chain be broken? In the case of representing food, it was found that images and language can be used to provide a rewarding experience. Labeling healthy foods with sensory characteristics like sweet and tangy was more rewarding and had higher expectations as compared to labeling with health terms like vitamin-rich. Similarly, in creating images, just showing a yogurt was less inviting than showing it with a spoon ready to be eaten. These ideas can be applied to drinking and hydration, too. Moreover, from responses to the “typical features”, talking about short-term rewarding benefits is much more important than long-term health benefits.

The key features that consumers see as rewards need to be highlighted. For alcohol, the social context was the salient feature whereas for sugary drinks it was taste and texture. For water, the salient feature is thirst-quenching. Highlighting this and finding other such features that give the right rewarding experience needs to be used when trying to get people to switch drinking behavior.

Lastly, it must be noted that drinking is a static, habitual behavior. It may take time to create a new habit, and the daily routine should be taken into context when encouraging a change.

Healthy Hydration and You

While all of this is in the context of making broader decisions for consumers, the same principles can be applied to individuals around you or even yourself. Think of how you can habitually change what drink you consume by looking at the immediate rewards like thirst-quenching and feeling healthier. Also, ensure you create a good experience around the situation for making the habit sustain in the long term.

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