The idea of ‘nudging’ is a fairly new concept, but one that may have particular use in understanding and effecting dietary choices and habits.
To be a ‘nudge’, a regulation or action cannot eliminate any options and it must remain (easy and/or effortless, depending on your personal definition of the concept) to make the choice you want. So, for instance, if you want really want a candy bar, a ‘nudge’ might have a row of health bars filled with dates and nuts and dried fruit above the candy bars. Now, you can still buy the candy bar but your eyes are drawn to these healthy bars first and you might have a second thought or even feelings of guilt – Oh no, I am really trying to be healthier; maybe I should just get one of these Nak’d® bars instead…
But, in the end, you can still get the Snickers® or the Kit Kat® or whatever candy you might fancy. It’s just that the options look different and the way you react might be affected.
Nothing about nudging behaviour is definitive, but here’s the thing about nudges and food: In the current food climate a nudge can’t even come close to levelling the playing field.
In every single way, your purchasing behaviour is drastically affected by a variety of advertising strategies. From the billboards that are universally covered in unhealthy food choices that are filled with animal products (fried chicken, burgers, steak, ribs, ice cream, cheese…) to the store layout (what’s the last thing you see while you’re waiting in line to check out – tons of junk food, that’s what!) and the prices themselves (what’s cheaper: a bag of nuts or crisps?)
None of this is accidental and it is these types of mechanisms (referred to as ‘choice architecture’) that contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer epidemics that are exacerbated by the overconsumption of animal products, saturated fat, salt and processed sugar.
Sounds pretty hopeless, I know.
But, here’s the good part – this also means that the strategies needed to promote healthy consumption have already been created and tested by the industries profiting from our unhealthy food choices.
So, in this case, a ‘nudge’ simply needs to turn the tables.
You walk to the grocery store. On the way, instead of seeing billboards for fried chicken, 2 for 1 pizzas and soda there is an information campaign reminding you of the UK’s ‘5 A Day’ program (not so hard to imagine since this already exists!)
Inside, the options are still there but instead of 20 types of dairy milk and one solitary soya carton, there are equal numbers of dairy and non-dairy milks. The government subsidies supporting the dairy industry from national and international governments (e.g. the EU) no longer exist, so the dairy milk is equal in price or, more likely, more than the other milk choices.
On your way to check out, your bored and wandering mind looks at the final options, thinking – should I get a cheeky bit of… – and there you find some fresh fruit, perhaps nuts or dried fruit.
Our behaviours are already being ‘nudged’ through private (and public) money. Wouldn’t you rather be ‘nudged’ to do something that is actually good for you? For the planet? And for the animals?
Saghai, Y. (2013). Salvaging the concept of nudge. Journal of Medical Ethics [Online], 39(8), 487-93. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23427215 [Accessed 17 Oct 2015].
Thaler, R. H. and Sunstein, C. (2009). Nudge : Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. [Online]. [Revised edition]. edn. London: London : Penguin Books.
Wertheimer, A. (2013). Should ‘nudge’ be salvaged?. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(8), 498-499.
 (Thaler and Sunstein 2009)
 (e.g. Wertheimer 2013; Saghai 2013)
 In 2014, €1,629.72 million was spent on livestock subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy, over 24 times more than was spent on fruits and vegetables (just €65.75 million). For more information, see: http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/cap-funding/beneficiaries/shared/index_en.htm.