Buckingham Palace with crowds on the Mall

The MRS held a Seminar in February 2017 looking at health, fitness and wellbeing and what can be done to drive behaviour and define a well-being agenda.

Today we are deluged with healthy living advice – on food habits, exercise and stress-reducing behaviour. There is a plethora of health clubs, new apps to encourage good habits, and articles galore, not only in specialised publications, but in mass and social media. Food companies and supermarkets have understood that this is a consumer concern: e.g. many manufacturers have reduced the sugar components in their food and companies such as M&S have introduced an ‘Eat well range’– with the slogan ‘Spot our Eat Well sunflower for hundreds of healthy choices’. Nonetheless consumers are confused about what is healthy and what is not. Market and social research can help in unpacking the contradictions and understanding people’s behaviour and attitudes, helping not only to build great brands, but making a valuable evidence-based contribution to societal well-being.

Market and social research has always been concerned with this issue. In World War II researchers examined the population’s weight, and eating habits and rationing allowances were developed in response to research on a balanced diet. At different times during the war, according to supplies and people’s needs, they were exhorted to eat more bread, or potatoes. The COI (Central Office of Information) had an extensive programme of research during the war and in the decades that followed, looking into people’s food consumption and exercise behaviour. The work and techniques developed during World War II to help in rationing decisions formed a strong base for the excitement and creativity that was to be characteristic of the market and social research industry in the decades that followed.

For the special Survey issue, ‘Then and Now’, in winter 1986, which celebrated the MRS’s 40th birthday, Research Services replicated a 1940s survey on ‘Eating sweets’ to show the differences between the ՛40s and ՛80s for this behaviour. How different are the ’40s figures during sweet rationing, the ’80s figures where choices of sweets and chocolates were proliferating and brand competition was high and today, when sweet and sugar consumption are viewed so negatively. But in 1986 “36% of respondents, felt that the re-introduction of sweet rationing would benefit their health and 37% felt it would result in weight loss!”.

In autumn 1988 MRS Survey published a special issue ‘Researching Health and Beauty’. Among the articles was a discussion on healthy eating amongst the consumers of tomorrow. Philippa Cowking, PHD Research, emphasised that healthy habits need to be learned young

She reported the results of qualitative research into the behaviour of young people aged 10 to twenty years. The survey showed that most children and teenagers were aware of the current debates on healthy eating but many refused to do anything about it (plus ҫa change). Four distinct typologies emerged from the study reflecting different levels of commitment to healthy eating: jumping beans: the health activists; nearly made-its: health recidivists; norm and norma: these were the moderates in thought and action who were happy with their choices and felt no guilt; greasy spoons: hostile-to-health youngsters The main conclusion was that for young people good health centres on how you look, not how you feel: they are motivated a lot more by an immediate need to look good than by the long-term aim of living to a ripe old age.

In the same issue Gillian Comins, PAS – Public Attitude Surveys Research, reported on a survey on health and fitness in the London Borough of Croydon and Glenn Flackett, Syndicated Data Consultants Ltd, presented findings from the company’s ‘Measures of health’ survey.

Talking to Phyllis Vangelder, Ann Burdus, then a Director of AGB Research and Deputy Chairman of the Health Education Authority, stressed the remit of market and social research in redressing the balance between opinion and fact. She pointed out “evaluation of effectiveness is built into all the Authority’s work”.

These are only some of the fascinating trend data we are collecting for the archive. Watch the website for further ‘nuggets’!


  • ‘Then and now – eating sweets’, Research Services Ltd, in Survey, winter 1986, ‘Then and Now’.
  • ‘Young and ‘healthy’’, Philippa Cowking, in Survey, autumn 1988, ‘Researching Health and Beauty’.
  • ‘Croydon looks at health’, Gillian Comins, in Survey, autumn 1988, ‘Researching Health and Beauty’.
  • ‘How much do you weight?’ Glynn Flackett, in Survey, autumn 1988, ‘Researching Health and Beauty’.
  • The Survey interview: Ann Burdus, AGB Research plc, talks to Phyllis Vangelder on health education, in Survey, autumn 1988, ‘Researching Health and Beauty’
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