'Language is the source of misunderstandings'–impact of terminology on public perceptions of health promotion messages

Buckton, C. , Lean, M. E.J. and Combet, E. (2015) 'Language is the source of misunderstandings'–impact of terminology on public perceptions of health promotion messages. BMC Public Health, 15, 579. (doi: 10.1186/s12889-015-1884-1)

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Background: The high level of premature death due to non-communicable diseases has been associated with unhealthful lifestyles, including poor diet. The effectiveness of public health strategies designed to promote health via messages focusing on food and diets depends largely on the perception of the messages by the public. The aim of this study was to explore public perceptions of language commonly used to communicate concepts linking health, food and the diet.<p></p> Methods: This study is a qualitative and semi-quantitative cross-sectional survey exploring public perceptions of terms used to improve eating habits within public health strategies. We recruited adults with no background in nutrition or health-care, from May to July 2013, from urban areas of varying deprivation (n = 12) in Glasgow and Edinburgh, UK. Four key prompt-terms used to convey the idea of improving health through diet were selected for testing: Healthy Eating, Eating for Health, Balanced Diet and Nutritional Balance. Consumer understanding of these terms was explored using mixed-methods, including qualitative focus groups (n = 17) and an interviewer-led word-association exercise (n = 270).<p></p> Results: The word-association exercise produced 1,386 individual responses from the four prompt-terms, with 130 unique responses associated with a single term. Cluster analysis revealed 16 key themes, with responses affected by prompt-term used, age, gender and socio-economic status. Healthy Eating was associated with foods considered ‘healthy’ (p <0.05); Eating for Health and Balanced Diet with negative connotations of foods to avoid (both p <0.001) and Nutritional Balance with the benefits of eating healthily (p <0.01). Focus groups revealed clear differences in perceptions: Eating for Health = positive action one takes to manage existing medical conditions, Healthy Eating = passive aspirational term associated with weight management, Balanced Diet = old fashioned, also dieting for weight loss, Nutritional Balance = maximising physical performance. Food suppliers use Healthy Eating terminology to promote weight management products. Focus group participants welcomed product reformulation to enhance food health properties as a strategy to overcome desensitisation to health-messages.<p></p> Conclusions: Public perceptions of messages communicating concepts linking health, food and the diet are influenced by terminology, resulting in confusion. To increase individual commitment to change eating habits in the long term, public health campaigns need strengthening, potentially by investing in tailored approaches to meet the needs of defined groups of consumers.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Lean, Professor Michael and Combet Aspray, Professor Emilie and Buckton, Christina
Authors: Buckton, C., Lean, M. E.J., and Combet, E.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Medicine, Dentistry & Nursing
Journal Name:BMC Public Health
Publisher:BioMed Central
ISSN (Online):1471-2458
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2015 The Authors
First Published:First published in BMC Public Health 15(579)
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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