Unintended Consequences of Simple Messaging

Note: As part of RD day and the RD day blogfest, each of the International Food Information Council Foundation's RDs is highlighting a key message and also what we've learned about messaging as communicators.  Visit our main blog page for all 5 posts and see below for links to other blogfest participants.

By: Kris Sollid, RD   Date: 3/9/10

In honor of RD day, March 10, 2010, I salute all my fellow dietitians.  Whether you work in clinical, community, consumer, food industry, policy, business or research environments, you all communicate a variety of important nutrition messages.  However, if I could only choose one message, I would say "increase fruit and vegetable intake".  I say this because this message was conveyed to me very early in life, and I've been the beneficiary of its life-long-positive impact.

Beginning at a young age, my grandpa Ronnie opened my eyes to the ways of the world.  He exposed me to the value of hard work, the joys of vintage convertible mustangs, and the indiscrimination of cancer.  But his greatest gift to me was an introduction to the game of golf.  "Golf's a simple game" he used to warn with a wry grin.  If he were alive today, I'd tell him how I've spent my life waiting for golf to become "simple".  I'm still waiting, and perhaps always will.

Although I learned many things from my grandpa, I managed to learn a few things of my own along the way as well.  One such thing is the acronym "KISS", or "keep it short and simple".  Many RD's learn such message delivery techniques to avoid confusion among patients, clients, and consumers, but how effective really is this approach?  In an effort to oversimplify, have our good intentions gone awry?  Unfortunately, even the best of intentions can have unintended consequences.

Beware of Unintended Consequences
Unintended consequences are not unique to nutrition, nor are they a recent phenomenon, but the potential pitfalls of simple messaging have affected our profession for many years.  During the decades of the 1980's and 90's, consumer messaging targeted weight management and heart disease, calling for avoidance of high fat foods.  Unfortunately, with the simultaneous introduction of "low fat" food items, the message became convoluted and misinterpreted into "low fat equals low calorie".  A consumer disconnect also began to grow (and still exists today to some degree) between nutrient-dense foods high in fat and the ability to fit those foods into healthy eating plans.  In the end, the low-fat campaign had the unintended consequence of increasing total calorie consumption, not the well-intended decrease.

In more recent times, we have seen a push for "increasing fresh fruit and vegetable intake".  What a nutritious and ambitious idea, save for one subtle word.  In fact, it's so subtle that we as RD's may not even realize we say it; it's the word "fresh."  I know farmer's markets are en vogue (for the record, I love them) and we're all attempting to reduce our carbon footprint by buying local (for the record, I love this too), but when did fresh become a prerequisite to eating healthy?  Not all consumers have equal access, income, or desire to eat fresh fruits and vegetables year-round.  Emphasizing only fresh produce may lead consumers to believe frozen and canned options are not nutritious, and have the unintended consequence of decreasing total fruit and vegetable intake among certain populations.

While catchy clichés and sound bites may present more sensational and time efficient ways to deliver nutrition messages, take time to consider the impact of your voice as the nutrition expert.  Unintended consequences can arise when messages fail to be comprehensive, balanced, and individualized in nature.  Be mindful, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

For additional thoughts and ideas on effective nutrition messaging, check the blogs posted by my colleagues at the International Food Information Council Foundation.

Other RD Blogfest posts:

Beyond Prenatals (Debra) - Vitamin D in Pregnancy and Beyond
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RD - Can Dietitians Have Real I.M.P.A.C.T?
Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, LD - Changes Worth Making Take Time
Carrie Miller - What Nebraska Dietitians Are Saying
National Dairy Council- Nutrient-rich foods build a healthy diet
Janel Ovrut MS RD LDN - My Top Tips for Registered Dietitian Day!
Heather Pierce, MS, RD, CDE - Enjoy Food
Robin Plotkin, RD, LD - Give a Kid a Fish, Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Kid to Fish, Feed Him for Life
Elizabeth Rahavi, RD - The Art of Nutrition Messaging
Shelley A. Rael, MS RD LD - Food Is LIFE, Nutrition is HEALTHY Life
Kerry Robinson, RD - A Food Safety Message with IMPACT
Marianne Smith-Edge, MS, RD - RDs are the Premiere Food and Health Communicators
Angie Tillman, RD, CDE, LDN- Take Time to Care for Yourself