Making Health the Default

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A recent article featured in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation News Digest on Childhood Obesity highlights a simple strategy that can be implemented in restaurants and other venues to improve the food environment.

The innovative new strategy is to change the offerings on children’s menus to highlight the healthier options. One way to do this is to set the default side options for children’s meals to healthier items. The default refers to the items that come with a combination meal if you do not explicitly ask for certain items. Traditionally, the default side options for combination meals have been soda and french fries. Healthier options are items that are advertised as alternatives to the defaults, such as apple slices, carrot sticks,100% fruit juices, low-fat milk, or water.

Shifting the restaurant food environment in this way-making lower-calorie beverage options and fresh fruits and vegetables the norm-may help to improve children’s nutrition when eating away from home. This is significant, as the number of meals children eat away from home has been increasing in recent years. Offering healthier items as the default also changes the decision-making environment by facilitating healthy choices rather than requiring people to alter their own behavior.

This type of strategy has been dubbed “libertarian paternalism” by University of Chicago professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their recent book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. A “nudge” is designed to steer individuals towards a certain behavior without taking away their freedom of choice. Read More >