How we can apply behavioural insights to facilitate more sustainable diets: a Q&A with Heidi Zamzow

Heidi Zamzow is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science 

I focus on dietary change because our current food system is at the root of most existential threats we face today.
Heidi3 747 x 560
Heidi Zamzow

What are you currently researching?

Broadly, I investigate how to apply behavioural insights to facilitate a transition to more sustainable diets. Much of my work explores how to strategically communicate changing dietary norms in a way that will engage people so they will be more receptive.

Why did you choose this area of study?

When I was an oceanographer, I witnessed the devastating impact of human activities on marine life. I then moved into science communication and environmental advocacy, which was rewarding, but progress came too little and often too late. I came to LSE to learn how we can deliver more effective policies to facilitate change at the speed and scale required.

I focus on dietary change because our current food system is at the root of most existential threats we face today: species extinction, natural resource degradation, zoonoses, climate change and its knock-on effects – from ocean acidification to extreme weather – ultimately impacting food security and political stability.

A rapid shift to plant-based diets is our best hope for staying within planetary boundaries, dramatically reducing emissions of methane and nitrous oxide (far more potent warming agents than CO2) whilst simultaneously soaking up greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. It would restore habitat and biodiversity, reduce antimicrobial resistance, decrease risk of pandemics, improve human health, and much more.  As someone put it, ‘If we get food right, we get everything right.’

You have undertaken some work with the LSE catering team looking at how to encourage people to choose more low carbon food options in LSE’s catering outlets. Can you tell us a bit more about this work and your findings?

I was invited to join the team’s Environmental Working Group as a behavioural science consultant in 2020. We started with simple ‘nudges’, such as putting plant-based options first and adding carbon labels to menus. However, these initiatives were based on work done at other universities. We never tested whether they were actually effective at encouraging uptake of plant-based options.

Eventually the opportunity arose to run an experiment in one of the catered halls, where I tested messages emphasising more students were choosing low-carbon dishes for the planet and their health. I found that, not only did the messages have no effect, the students reported never noticing them! In fact, most weren’t even aware of the carbon labels or knew what they meant. Also, food choices were motivated by taste or health, not sustainability. What did make a difference was the percentage of low-carbon dishes on offer, illustrating how universities can use food policy to drive the transition from the ‘bottom-up’.

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

Most people recognise it takes a systems level approach to achieve meaningful change. But policies must be framed somehow. It’s important to identify strategies which really work – and then find ways to implement and communicate them so people will be receptive. My research is intended to inform food policies and campaigns so that they will be both accepted and effective.

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

I stay connected with former colleagues, so I’ve been invited to present my work to people affiliated with organisations such as NASA and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is so encouraging, as my vision is to bring together the best parts of the natural and social sciences to create a more just and sustainable world.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Finding no effects after you’ve put so much work into an experiment can be discouraging. Fortunately, our department has wise academics who helped me see the value of null findings in making important contributions to the field. I now have a better appreciation of the challenges involved in applying theory to practice on real-world policy issues.

What advice would you give to prospective students on the most effective way to approach research and keep stress levels down?

Take advantage of resources like the PhD Academy, LSE Life, and LSE Careers. Don’t think you have to go it alone – ask for help! Teachers, staff, fellow students and early career researchers are invaluable sources of guidance and support.

In a few words, what is the best thing about studying at LSE?

Meeting people from all over the world and learning about their unique backgrounds, beliefs, and ideas. Listening to someone share their direct experience never fails to challenge me and inspire me to see things in new ways. I grew up on the West Coast of the US and have always been a ‘small town girl’, so living and studying in London has been truly life-changing!