Garlic Beans and Kale with Quinoa

Eating to Impress: Conspicuously Healthy Consumption

A friend and dietitian explained this several years ago. We were having lunch with a few of her colleagues who are also dietitians involved with food policy. “We call this competitive eating,” she said. Apparently, the idea is to enhance your professional status – or at least protect it – based on what you order at a restaurant. That may be an inside joke, but it turns out that ordinary humans do it, too. Eating to impress is something that researchers see driving consumer behaviors.

Conspicuous Consumption

A new paper in Appetite describes it. Food carries an important social value. The food we eat becomes part of our identity. It tells people who we are and informs our social status. Conspicuous consumption means spending money – in this case on food – to gain status. What matters is how others react. Not the food itself. (“I’ll have a Nourish Bowl, please.”)

Functional foods – promising a health benefit – are perfect tools for conspicuous consumption. Dovile Barauskaite and colleagues studied a sample of 900 consumers to gain insight into their motivations for buying foods with health claims. The examined consumer attitudes and self-reported purchase behavior. And in fact, they found evidence for conspicuous consumption of healthy foods.

Health consciousness didn’t predict a person’s purchases of healthy foods. But a consumer’s tendency toward conspicuous consumption did. Social norms seem to play a role.

Eating for Health or Eating to Impress?

This consumer research is hardly the final word. It’s self-reported data. This research comes from only one culture. But even more more important, we know that sorting out consumer motivations is as much an art as it is a science.

Nonetheless, we tend to believe that conspicuous consumption of a healthy lifestyle is a big factor in consumer behavior today. Ancient grains and yoga pants are popping up everywhere we go.

Conspicuous consumption might indeed prompt some health enhancing behaviors. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the true motivation is status, not health. But, as Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters recently observed, conspicuous health consumption can promote disparities, too.

Is health a privilege of social status and wealth? Should it be?

Click here for the Barauskaite paper and here for an economic analysis of conspicuous health consumption and taxation.

Garlic Beans and Kale with Quinoa, photograph © Tasha / flickr

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August 26, 2018