Eating well: If instructions won’t work, perhaps music and dance do

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Information alone does not change eating habits. Together with the Billian Music Family in Mathare, we experiment with trend-setting music.

You probably place a lot of faith and trust in information – depending on the source. As a scientist, I do the same. In the field of behaviour change communication, many still believe that access to information will change human behaviour. Researchers spend a lot of time crafting messages for people whose opinion and eventually behaviour we want to change– take the goal of influencing people to eat better and choose healthier foods, for instance. But does more and better information fulfil the behaviour change promise?

The theoretical basis for behaviour change communication has dramatically improved over the past couple of decades. Be it the Health Belief Model or the Theory of Planned Behaviour, we’ve developed new tools to help understand (and try to predict) under what conditions a person will make behavioural adjustments.

Yet, I have my doubts about the efficacy of these approaches. Changing dietary behaviour means asking people to eat more nutritious, safe food from reliable sources. In informal settlements, where I often work, it’s probably one of the most challenging tasks you could think of. (I think of my late grandparents, farmers who treated food something almost sacred – lunch and dinner had to look, smell, taste, feel in a specific way, otherwise, it didn’t count as food.). Let’s assume for a moment availability and accessibility of healthy foods isn’t the constraining factor. If I provide sufficient information to people, would they transition from eating maize once a day to a diverse diet? Very unlikely – because people don’t necessarily act upon what they know. More importantly, food preparation and consumption is an emotional affair, one that has implications for social relations.

If people change the foods they eat and alter their eating habits, they eventually change social relations and emotions that organise social interaction.

So we at ICRISAT decided to try something different.

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