Veggies in the Front: Environmental Guardrails for Healthy Eating

Veggies In The FrontOne of my favorite things to do when I travel to a new country is hit a grocery store and check out the products. I love seeing the variations on items between home and abroad. The first time I saw eggs stored on a room temperature shelf instead of a refrigerator case, my mind was blown. Call me weird if you like, but it’s a cheap thrill that I’ll always take.

In Copenhagen, the grocery store I popped into immediately stuck out because of a design feature that most American grocery stores don’t have: The produce section was in the front, when you first walk in:


It’s no secret that grocery store layouts are incredibly deliberate. They’re usually designed with the items people need most often at the back or in the middle of the store, so shoppers have to walk through aisles of other merchandise to get there. Fresh items are often on the perimeter of the store, so that even healthy-minded shoppers who avoid the middle aisles have to pass endcap displays on their journey. In the grocery stores where I’ve regularly shopped over the years, the only one that has ever made the produce section prominent when you first walk in was Whole Foods, and that’s kind of their schtick.

(By the way, note that any articles that talk about produce sections being up front in grocery stores emphasize that the reason for this is to highlight the florist. Apparently the beautiful flowers get people in the mood to buy dry goods.)

Now I don’t know if the Copenhagen store we visited was the Danish equivalent of Whole Foods, which might explain the prominence of the fruits and veggies. But then I noticed this at another store:


Single-serve grab-and-go fruit! Right at the front of the store! But wait . . . let’s zoom out:


I was pretty shocked to see first that 7-Eleven is all over Denmark and Sweden, and second that it is a different store there than in the United States. The food selections in the Scandinavian 7-Elevens tended toward fresh convenience items (although they boasted a full beer case like many American 7-Elevens). And the most prominent displays were often fruits and vegetables.

Contrast with the 7-Elevens of my homeland:20150929_065225

I guess bananas are fruit.

To the extent that our environments influence our behavior–and all evidence suggests that they do–these subtle variations in how our grocery and convenience stores are laid out could translate into real differences in our health, weight, and appearance.  If it were easy to grab a good-looking, appealing apple and you had to make an extra effort to buy the packaged processed snack, would you be more likely to choose the apple at least once in a while? Data on how frequently Danes and Americans actually eat healthy items indicate that you might. It’s just another way the world around us shapes how we behave.