Researcher Profile: Dr. Betsy Anderson Steeves

Researcher Profile: Dr. Betsy Anderson Steeves

Betsy Anderson Steeves

Dr. Betsy Anderson Steeves is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Tennessee- Knoxville. At the University of Tennessee she leads the Healthful Eating & Active Living Through Healthy Environments Lab where she conducts environmental interventions in retail food settings in rural, Appalachian communities in East Tennessee.  She is one of BECR’S New Perspective Fellows. Under the mentorship of the Center, Dr. Anderson Steeves will conduct experiments using her mobile food-purchasing laboratory to gain insight into purchasing behaviors.  

What made you interested in behavioral economics applied to public health nutrition?

I’ve always been interested in promoting healthy lifestyles through diet, however, I learned early on in my career that simply educating people about healthful eating will not change behavior. Behavioral economics provides a way to influence consumption behaviors, with minimal effort on the part of the person performing the health behavior. Given the many, complex decisions we make about food each day, shaping peoples’ choices with behavioral economics strategies to help them make healthier choices seems like a win-win situation.

How has your background informed your approach to public health nutrition?

I started my career working as a Research Associate for Dr. Hollie Raynor at the University of Tennessee managing behavioral weight loss randomized controlled trials. In Dr. Raynor’s lab, we also ran basic eating studies, where participants were brought into the lab and a component of the meal or environment was manipulated to determine the impact of the manipulation on consumption. For example, evaluating changes in consumption patterns during a meal while watching TV without food commercials compared to watching TV with food commercials.

After working in this lab, I completed my PhD at Johns Hopkins where I worked on food environment interventions led by Dr. Joel Gittelsohn, often targeting small retail food outlets. In these interventions there is always a give an take between the researchers and storeowners about implementing the intervention strategies, so it is difficult to truly test which interventions strategies have the most impact to improve healthfulness of food selections.

My work with the BECR Center will combine both of my previous research areas to determine if manipulations in the retail food environment can influence food and beverage selection. The goal of my research is to build an evidence base for behavioral economics strategies that encourage people to make healthier choices, and to translate those strategies into the retail food environment.

Can you talk about your mobile food purchasing laboratory? What kind of vehicle will you use? What are its anticipated features? What are some of the work-arounds to challenges you are facing in getting this started?

Sure! The mobile food purchasing lab is a large 20-26 foot box truck, which is similar to a moving truck. The back of the truck is outfitted to resemble a small retail food outlet, including beverage coolers, retail shelving, and a check-out counter. “Customers” entering the truck will feel like they have entered a corner or convenience store. This mobile lab will allow us to take our research to low-income rural Appalachian communities, thus gaining assess to individuals that would face barriers to participating in a university-based laboratory research study.

This is a novel area of research, and I am taking small steps to move this research forward. We will begin by using a rental truck from the University of Tennessee before purchasing a permanent truck. I will also start by running interventions using shelf-stable foods and beverages rather than a full selection of convenience store items to reduce the possibility of spoilage as we determine our research protocols.

What behavioral economic strategies are you planning on implementing in your mobile lab?

The beauty of mobile lab is that the sky is the limit. Once we have our research protocols in place, we can test an unlimited number of manipulations to determine the impact on participants’ purchasing behaviors. The first intervention that I am conducting will evaluate variations in product mix ratios—ratios of healthy to unhealthy foods—to determine the tipping point in which participants are more likely to make a healthier choice. This manipulation will provide evidence into how effective staple food policies are/will be. Additional intervention strategies we plan on testing include bundling healthier food and beverage items together to create different choice structures and pricing incentives, and manipulations of priming through marketing, promotions and product packaging to test how different primes, promotions, and packaging impact item selection.

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