Nudging With Calorie Counts: Health and Eating Disorders

The UK government wants all restaurants to put calorie counts on the menu. Here’s why that’s both good — and bad.

Boris Johnson is all about health now.

At seventeen stone and seven pounds when he was admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in early April, he now realises that his weight was a key reason for the severity of his illness. His BMI was over 36, comfortably putting him in the “obese” category.

He’s lost at least a stone since being discharged after a spell in intensive care. His personal epiphany has now become a political realisation, that many people in Britain need to lose weight — and that the government needs to do something about the poor health of the nation.

And he’s absolutely right. Nearly 2/3 of the population is obese or overweight, putting extra pressure on the NHS and food supplies, contributing to climate change, and worsening people’s health.

There are many different measures the government is putting into place as part of this new agenda. Some fall into the “nanny state” category, such as banning two-for-one deals on sugary foods. But other measures are more libertarian, nudging people towards healthy options without limiting their choices.

One of these nudges — and the one which has drawn the most considerable debate and news coverage — is the new mandate for restaurants to publish calorie counts on their menus.

The UK government has led the way internationally on the use of nudging within government policy. The Behavioural Insights Team — or the Nudge Unit — was set up by the Cabinet Office under David Cameron’s premiership, and is still part-owned by the government. This team advises the government, businesses, and foreign governments on the implementation of behavioural economics in public policy.

It’s no surprise, then, that even in spite of Boris Johnson’s shift towards nanny state policies, the agenda to improve the health of the nation still includes nudges.

And for many people, this nudge is a positive one. It will enable people to make better food choices — without forcing them to — by giving them the information they need. Restaurant food is often more unhealthy than people realise.

However, nudges can also have negative impacts — either intentionally or unintentionally. Here, the government must realise the effect that calorie counts on menus could have on people who suffer with, or are vulnerable to, eating disorders. With decreasing body confidence and increasing mental health issues, particularly among young people, that’s a real and growing problem.

1.3 million UK adults are known to suffer from eating disorders. The real number is likely significantly higher than that. The government cannot just ignore these people.

Naturally, the government won’t want to simply scrap the proposal. It could, after all, have significant benefits for the majority of people in Britain. But they must take steps to ensure that those with eating disorders aren’t affected negatively.

One simple step would be a public information campaign about eating disorders and calorie needs. More widely, education for young people about diets and body confidence would ensure that the problem cannot grow.

The government could even use a counter-nudge to ensure that eating disorders don’t worsen as a result of calorie counts. A logo or slogan to nudge people towards eating a healthy number of calories could be printed on restaurant menus alongside the calorie counts, ensuring that everyone gets the maximum benefits from this policy.

But governments, around the world, must understand that they cannot use nudges without fully assessing their potential impacts. Nudging is the most powerful tool governments have to hack the psychology of the people, and that sort of power should be used carefully and with consideration.

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