From Regulation to Behaviour Change: why nudging and do’s may work better than don’ts in nutrition policy

Nutrition is a policy imperative to combat the increasing burden of chronic disease. The recent World Health Organisation report underscores that promotion of healthier diets by governments offers the most return on investment, outstripping actions to reduce alcohol abuse and smoking cessation.

For every $1 invested in promoting better diet, this generates an almost 13-fold return on investment ($12.82) compared to the following investments for every $1 spent on: reduction of alcohol consumption ($9.13), smoking reduction ($7.43), physical activity ($2.80), and a meagre $2.74 for managing cancer.

Various policy instruments can be implemented by governments to bring about healthier societal dietary patterns; the most rigid methods comprise imposing rules and restrictions, including taxes on unhealthy items, reformulation, and advertising restrictions.

However, recent literature suggests that accentuating the positives is fundamental in encouraging individuals to adopt healthier diets: do’s may achieve more cut through than don’ts. A study by Cornell University in 2015 concludes that the most successful public policies are those that are framed positively and support freedom of choice.

When policies are more empathetic, and encourage good choices, rather than limiting bad ones, policymakers may be able to achieve more effective policies by driving increased uptake of healthy behaviour.

“Nudging” represents a policy instrument that has the potential for low-cost, broad application to guide healthier lifestyle and eating choices without the need for restrictive regulations. “Nudging” enables people to make their own choices and, as such, gives individuals a positive feeling about their choices.

Research shows that information and knowledge are often not enough to promote healthier lifestyle and eating choices. Knowledge is often placed on a back-burner when confronted with more immediate considerations, such as costs, convenience, taste, and when benefits only arise later in time. This is particularly relevant to complex decisions, such as individual diet and lifestyle choices as predictors of health and disease.

“Nudging” is a method that influences human behaviour and choices by giving a healthy push in the right direction. All options remain available, but the healthier option becomes the easy option.

Examples include more prominent offerings of healthy foods, such as fruits in cafeterias and next to supermarket tills, so that one needs to go that extra mile to access not-so-healthy options.

Nudging represents a positive, low-cost public health spend, complementing information and education initiatives. It supports society in embracing small, yet impactful behaviour changes to lifestyle and eating habits which, in the long term, may support in promoting health, well-being and protecting against chronic disease.

To read the World Health Organisation report click here.