Globe editorial: How to get people to eat their vegetables

Eat your Brussels sprouts, Canada. (Depositphotos)

Much of Canada’s incessant health-care debate is taken up with arguments over waiting lists and costs. So it’s beneficial to be reminded occasionally that relatively uncontroversial measures that are, on the face of it, only tangential to health can sometimes yield surprising results.

For example, small tweaks to the tax system.

A recent study of cardiovascular health in the United States examined a handful of different scenarios – including mass-media campaigns, price increases and price reductions – under which it might be possible to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables and cut that of sugar-laden carbonated drinks.

The peer-reviewed paper, in PLOS Medicine, delivered a striking finding: A 10-per-cent subsidy on the price of vegetables and fruits could result in about 150,000 “deaths prevented or postponed by 2030 in the U.S.”

It’s not a simple case of extrapolating those figures directly to the Canadian example. But the risk factors are similar. The relationship between a healthy diet and lower incidences of cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer does not end at the 49th parallel.

In fact, the Heart and Stroke Foundation warned in its 2016 report on the health of Canadians that heart failure is “a growing epidemic.”

So what if part of the answer is as simple as enacting what behavioural economists would call a “nudge”?

According to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey, nearly six in 10 children under 12 do not eat the daily recommended amount of plant-based foods.

Adults are scarcely better: Their average consumption has largely remained flat since 2003.

Based on the PLOS Medicine study, it should be eminently possible to design a fiscal-policy incentive to make fruits and vegetables a less expensive, more attractive proposition.

This isn’t about a nanny state dictating people’s food choices; it’s about governments creating incentives for Canadians to look after themselves better.

And, according to the PLOS Medicine study, it turns out that lowering the cost of healthy foods may be better policy than raising taxes on sugary soft drinks, as some are calling for in Canada.

The idea that lower costs might stimulate healthier eating is not an especially novel one. Several groups, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation, have been agitating for subsidies for years.

What’s new is robust statistical evidence that it might actually work. Maybe we should give it a try.

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