Views of Nature Affect Sugar Consumption and Delayed Gratification

Results from a randomized study comparing natural, urban, and control views

By Kurt Beil, ND, LAc, MPH

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Reference

Kao C-C, Wu W-H, Chiou W-B. Exposure to nature may induce lower discounting and lead to healthier dietary choices. J Environ Psychol. 2019;65:101333.

Study Objective

To determine the impact of natural and urban scenery on sugar consumption as mediated by temporal discounting (the tendency to devalue larger future benefits relative to immediate smaller gains, ie, preferring instant gratification over delayed gratification).

Participants

The study involved 93 undergraduate students at a Taiwanese university (mean age 20.9 years, 51.6% female) with a self-reported desire to lose weight. The researchers collected information about their motivation to lose weight, time since last meal, and current body mass index (BMI). Exclusion criteria included history of an eating disorder and current participation in a weight-loss regimen (including dietary changes and taking weight-loss supplements).

Design

Participants were randomized into 1 of 3 viewing conditions in which they observed scenes on a laptop computer screen corresponding to 1 of 3 landscape viewing types: natural, urban, or control. Each condition had a sequence of 6 scenes displayed, and each image was displayed for 1 minute. Participants were instructed to “immerse yourself in the environment shown in each picture.”

Participants then completed a measure of temporal discounting (see below) as well as a psychological personality test to mask the purpose of the experiment until after the study’s completion. Lastly, participants received a “participation reward” of bubble tea with an optional amount of sugar added.

Outcome Measures

  • Temporal discounting (TD): An important measure in assessing health behavior choices. TD assesses an individual’s devaluing of future benefits for more immediate rewards, ie, preferring immediate gratification over delayed gratification.1
    • In the study, participants answered hypothetical questions about winning the lottery in various dollar amounts—eg, “If you won, would you rather have $2,000 now, or $4,000 a year from now?” Sequential questions of differing amounts identified a preferred “discounting rate” for each participant, from 0 (no discounting) to 1 (total discounting, ie, the participant will always choose instant gratification).
  • Sugar amount (SA): Participants were able to self-select how sweet their reward bubble tea was (ie, how much sugar was in it), from 0 (no sugar) to 5 (normal sugar).

Key Findings

Viewing condition had a small but statistically significant impact on both temporal discounting and sugar amount, with further analysis showing the former significantly influencing the latter. Specifically:

  • Participants who viewed nature scenes had 17.5% lower mean TD than participants in the urban (P=0.014) and control (P=0.029) groups.
  • Similarly, nature-viewing participants had 19.1% lower SA than participants in the urban (P=0.013) and control (P=0.017) groups.
  • Mediation analysis demonstrated that:
    • Nature viewing was a significant factor in predicting TD (B=−0.18, SE=0.06, t=−2.749, P=0.007);
    • TD was a significant predictive factor in determining SA (B=2.83, SE=0.45, t=6.347, P<0.001);
    • Nature viewing was a significant predictive factor in determining SA only if TD was included in the analysis (B=−0.95, SE=0.33, t=−2.885, P=0.005).
  • Lastly, nature viewing also significantly influenced the sugar-free option (ie, SA=0) but only if TD was included in the analysis (B=1.32, SE=0.50, Z=2.638, P=0.008, Wald=6.956).

All conditions were statistically equivalent regarding motivation to lose weight, time since last meal, and BMI. There was no difference between male and female participants regarding outcomes.

Practice Implications

The ability of nature views to influence physiological and psychological state is well established.2–4 This study is one of the first to associate the presence of nature with changes in a health behavior (in this case, sugar consumption), as well as propose an explanatory mechanism (temporal discounting).

Health behaviors (ie, our choices and the actions we take regarding our health) determine 30% to 50% of our health status.5 Some of the most influential “determinants of health” are, by far, our dietary and nutritional consumption choices. This is especially true regarding chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, which have well-established and obvious relationships with diet, both calorically and nutritionally.

One of the biggest influences of dietary decisions is the tendency to engage in “temporal discounting,” or the reduced ability to delay gratification.6 It is a common experience to enjoy immediate rewards (eg, eating sugar-filled “junk” food) despite knowing there will be future consequences (such as weight gain). This predilection for unhealthy short-term gains with resultant long-term detrimental effects contributes substantially to individual health conditions and the modern epidemic of many chronic, diet-influenced illnesses.

Environmental surroundings influence every aspect of our health, including conscious and unconscious decision-making that affects health behaviors.

The predominant mechanism that connects viewing of the environment with health effects, potentially including sugar consumption, invokes an evolutionary perspective. Natural scenes are known to promote psychophysiological relaxation via evolutionarily derived “biophilic” responses.7,8 Across millennia, our species has evolved to relax in body and mind when encountering the natural “baseline” environments of our prehistoric ancestors.9,10

In this study, the presence of nature vs urban or control views may have shifted autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity into a parasympathetic state away from more sympathetic dominance, thereby decreasing energy metabolism and the (unconscious) desire to have available “quick energy” in case fight or flight became necessary. Multiple studies have demonstrated ANS responses to similarly designed interventions.11,12 Though the short duration of this study makes detecting hormonal changes impractical, it is possible that interest in metabolically available sugar was also influenced by neuroendocrine changes as shown in other studies.13–15 These mechanisms could explain the relationship between nature viewing, temporal discounting, and sugar consumption by modulating feelings of hunger and satiety, as well as cognitive function and decision-making regarding health behaviors. More research in this area is needed to establish causative pathways.

This study did have its limitations. The researchers conducted no pre-post comparison of the outcome measures, so while no between-group differences in time since last meal, BMI, or motivation for weight loss were present, it cannot be ruled out that individuals in the nature group had a priori tendencies for lesser TD and/or SA. Future studies may want to standardize these factors between groups before the experimental exposure, to best determine if the variable is responsible for the measured effects.

In addition, the researchers did not ask participants why they chose their amount of sugar reward, so it may be that TD was unrelated. Future studies could address this, though it is also possible that nature-mediated TD is an unconscious process, as it is with other nature-based mental-emotional effects, such as mood, attention, memory, etc. Lastly, this was a pilot study of 93 Taiwanese undergraduates; larger studies with more diverse sample populations would increase the generalizability of the findings.

Conclusion

Environmental surroundings influence every aspect of our health, including conscious and unconscious decision-making that affects health behaviors. In particular, this study suggests that exposure to nature-based scenery may be helpful for reducing sugar intake in adolescent populations at risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions. Combined with existing research demonstrating measurable effects on physiological and psychological state, it is becoming more apparent that contact with stimuli from natural environments may be a fundamental contributor to human health.

About the Author

Kurt Beil, ND, LAc, MPH, is a research investigator at National University of Natural Medicine’s (NUNM) Helfgott Research Institute where he completed a postdoctoral research program on biomarker and psychometric assessment of the restorative and therapeutic effect of natural vs. built urban environments. Beil holds a master’s degree in public health focused on the benefits of green space as a sustainable public health promotion tool, and speaks and writes regularly about these topics. He has taught courses on these topics at NUNM and the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine (AIHM), has been an advisor to the Children & Nature Network’s “Nature Research Database,” and was the founding cochair of the Nature & Health subcommittee of the Intertwine Alliance in Portland. Beil also moderates a Facebook group (“NDs for Nature”) for the naturopathic medicine community on the clinical health benefits of contact with nature. He maintains clinical naturopathic and Chinese medicine practices in Sandy, Oregon. He can be reached at drkurt@rosenaturalhealth.com or www.drkurtbeil.com.

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