/ Food & Drink, Health

We need a shove, not a nudge, to eat healthily

Thin man holding apple and fat man holding burger

What part should the government play in helping us to eat more healthily? Is it enough to “nudge” us towards healthy foods and choices, or does regulation have its place too?

A recent report from the House of Lords looked at what influences us to make healthier choices. It was critical of the government’s approach based on the ‘nudge’ theory, saying it was too limited.

Over the last few years there’s been a lot of attention given to influencing the food choices we make. We’ve had numerous public health strategies on issues such as obesity and other diet-related diseases.

They’ve generally concluded that education alone isn’t enough and that the environment in which we make these choices really shapes our decisions – whether that’s the layout of a supermarket or the availability of cycle routes, for example.

What’s the “nudge” theory?

The government has been talking a lot about nudge. It’s all based on a book by two Americans called Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which argues that it’s possible to alter our ‘choice architecture’ so that we make healthier choices without even realising it. Crucially, they stress that this can be done without restricting freedom of choice and through means other than regulation.

A lot of this makes sense. At Which? we’ve focused on addressing the barriers that make it difficult to eat healthily. For example, reducing salt levels in foods, making the content of foods clear through traffic light labelling and availability of healthy choices in price promotions. Nudge doesn’t really seem that different to it in principle – although it does in scale of ambition.

Regulation plays a part

The House of Lords emphasised that sometimes we really do need regulation and that there’s a difference between restricting the freedom of individuals and restricting the freedom of businesses through regulation.

It criticised the government’s approach to front of pack nutrition labelling, where, (in line with our findings) it said that the traffic light labelling scheme works best. It suggested that the government’s policy (which didn’t support traffic lights) was too focused on what could be achieved through voluntary agreement with the food industry rather than what the evidence shows works best. It also called for regulation of TV advertising to children to be strengthened.

There are some things that can be achieved through voluntary agreement, but these are usually down to the government really pushing the food industry to act and highlighting good and bad practice. That’s what happened with work on salt reduction.

It would be great to think that we could all just be nudged into being healthy and that the food industry would realise that it was in its interests to help us do this.

But in reality there are a lot of different companies, some which produce healthier foods and others that rely on profits from sales of precisely the types of foods we need to eat in moderation. Regulation is therefore necessary as well – and it’s often the case of needing a shove rather than a nudge.


“What part should the government play in helping us to eat more healthily? ”

Absolutely none.

It is clearly not working and therefore going further and forcing people to eat “healthily” is tantamount to fascism. It’s not Which’s business and it’s not the governments business what I eat in my free time.

How about dropping the “nudging” and just leave us all alone? Could people actually be eating unhealthily out of spite?

Basically, I don’t care if someone says that they are looking out for my best interest, they don’t know what is best for me because they are not me or anyone connected with my life.

Why do you think no-one is listening?

Rather strongly put but I basically agree with you.
If anyone decides to eat junk, get fat and develop heath issues it’s their choice, it’s their responsibility.
We are gradually turning into a country where the self appointed “I know better than you” class is dictating in ever increasing detail how we lead our lives, in the guise of protecting ourselves from ourselves.
I for one have had enough of it. Educate, help and advise by all means but dictate and legislate – no.

Every piece of “control legislation” is a further element in the process of dumbing down the population, and I think we’ve gone far too far in this direction already.

It must be made clear to people that they are responsible for themselves and their own well being. Even an apparently benevolent “big brother” is still a “big brother”.

John says:
3 August 2011

the government already “nudges” in the direction of healthy food by charging VAT at 20% on all unhealthy food and no VAT on healthy food.

How about adding at least 50% tax on junk food and subsidise heavily healthy food so that it is always cheaper than junk food – at the moment junk food is too cheap – believe me I tried to save. I want to live healthily but can’t – The problem is can the country afford me living long and healthily – think of all the extra pension.

I think you’ve got a very good point, Richard, often junk food seems like the cheaper option. And the proliferation of pound stores doesn’t help – they rack up the aisles with crisps, sweets and sugary drinks – all for next to nothing.

But, I do think that with a bit of know-how and effort you can cook from scratch for less. Buying pulses, tins etc in bulk and using a mixture of frozen and basics fresh food won’t cost much and can provide lots of healthy meals, but it takes time and planning.

Our food expert (and qualified nutritionist) Shefalee Loth recently investigated budget vs premium food to see which budget ranges are as good nutritionally – the results are pretty interesting: https://conversation.which.co.uk/money/budget-food-versus-premium-food/

John says:
4 August 2011

Like I said above – how about the 20% tax we already have on unhealthy food? We pay no VAT on healthy food but 20% on luxury unhealthy food. Clearly a tax doesn’t work, or is 20% too little for you?

Sophie Gilbert says:
2 August 2011

I could say, but I wouldn’t mean it, that I won’t mind what part the government has to play in helping people eat more healthily the day the obese aren’t treated by the NHS any longer. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you don’t care about others) this won’t happen any time soon. Other people’s ill health affects us all.

Perhaps I shouldn’t try to put it better than John Donne did, “no man is an island” and add “at least thankfully not in Britain”.

The day that people suffering from obesity aren’t treated by the NHS is the day they don’t pay for it alongside everybody else.

No person is an island when we look at the “vices” that many share, but still get treated for: STIs, sport related injuries, DIY accidents, accidents and injury due to poor driving, injury through physical abuse, alcoholism, drugs misuse, and there are many more injuries and conditions that could result in individuals having the finger of blame pointed at them.

Focusing on one of these and suggesting that particular group should not be using “our” NHS is unjust, unreasonable and risks being seen as self-righteousness.

The NHS is for everyone regardless of others’ judgements about lifestyle.

Tackling obesity and it’s varied causes (or any of the other items above) can be done so much more constructively than using mob discrimination, bullying and exclusion (or should that be nudge theory).

As long as the state is paying for cost of obesity, heart disease and alcohol related illnesses it should have the right to take measures in the industry to reduce the incidence of these conditions.

David S. says:
3 August 2011

In an ‘ideal world’ the proceeds from a 5% VAT levy on ‘junk food’ could be spent by the government to reduce the prices of ‘healthy’ food. This is a noble, and at present very relevant idea. Now the problems start. Firstly define ‘junk food’. Ascertain that EC regulations can allow the U.K. government to take the necessary action to favour the home market and control meat exports. Decide whether new U.K. legislation would be required to exercise the required controls over the food industry. Educate the public away from what many see as the easier option (‘fast food’), and encourage simple methods of feeding a family healthily (e.g. the use of a Slow Cooker).
All this assumes (probably incorrectly) that the present government is fully and unanimously committed to: 1) Reducing and ‘pegging’ food prices. and 2) Improving and maintaining the health of U.K. citizens. Or would the government simply use the said 5% VAT levy to enhance its own austerity agenda?

What is really needed is for legislation for food producers (and we are talking manufactured/processed foods here, not naturally-grown fruit and veg etc) to HAVE TO reduced the fat/sugar/salt content of their products by 10% year on year for, say, ten years, until levels are at around 30% of their current content. Such slight decreases would not affect the taste of the product in the same way as, for example, switching overnight to a ‘reduced sugar’ alternative. I did not cut out sugar in my tea overnight – I reduced the amount by half a teaspoon per fortnight from 3 to just a half. I now have no sugar in my tea. The point is: people can go on enjoying their burgers or bread, but the manufacturers should be forced to make the reductions in fat/sugar/salt levels seemingly unnoticed by consumers. Thereby, everyone wins: consumers get healthier eating and food producers do not lose out on sales – however, far too intelligent a concept for the law makers and food producers, I fear.