Lifestyle Economics

Government diet guidelines should strive for public education, not social engineering


Nutrition is, at present, a provisional science. Studies are published every week which update the orthodox positions on everything from proper fat consumption to the relative virtues of different lettuces, and it can take time for consensus to emerge from the chaos. To a layman, this academic landscape can be difficult to navigate, and so government-approved public health guidelines can serve as a powerful tool to enable us to make well informed choices.

In this environment, the efforts of some officials to misappropriate the system of government dietary guidelines as a weapon for social engineering, start to look especially ugly. All too often, the advice issuing from public health bodies derives not from true representations of the available evidence, but rather what is most likely to convince the public to change their behaviour – even if it means lying to them. This practice reveals a brazen disrespect for the public these officials claim to serve.

Take recent scaremongering over alcohol consumption. “There is no safe level!”, we were recently told by public health campaigners in their tin-foil hats. Their methods have been rightly subjected to scrutiny by the IEA’s Chris Snowdon – who points out, among other things, that increased risk of tuberculosis need not greatly worry us in Britain. But let’s take their claims at face value for a minute, and consider what they actually say about the dangers of moderate drinking:

“For each set of 100,000 people who have one drink a day per year, 918 can expect to experience one of the 23 alcohol-related problems in any year. Of those who drink nothing, 914 can expect to experience a problem.”

You could be forgiven for double-checking the above, given the authors’ extreme interpretation of these results. Out of every 100,000 non-drinkers, if each of them had one drink every day for the rest of their lives, there would be 4 extra cases of illness per year. Under whose definition is that “unsafe”? As it turns out, not even that of the scaremongers themselves. The following comments, from Imperial College London’s Professor Sonia Saxena, one of the authors of the study, act as a perfect example of this toxic combination of coercive paternalism and collectivism.

“One drink a day does represent a small increased risk, but adjust that to the UK population as a whole and it represents a far bigger number, and most people are not drinking just one drink a day.”

The first issue is quite apparent – that of intent. Whether most people are having more than one drink a day should be irrelevant when it comes to advising whether one drink a day is safe. Public health advice exists to help the public make informed decisions, and it should not be used to nudge people in a certain direction through exaggeration. The goal should always be towards information and education, not coercive paternalism. There are many other examples of this, such as recent advice regarding salt consumption, but perhaps the most pernicious case is that of fruit and vegetables.

A huge amount of evidence suggests that the health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables only plateau at around ten daily portions, and yet the official line remains to aim for five.

According to Victoria Taylor of the British Heart Foundation, there is a good reason for this: raising the bar would intimidate people into eating even less, she explains, and “there is no nutritional benefit in a guideline that is not followed.” Under this ideology, the primary purpose of advice is not to provide information or even an opinion, but to pressure towards a specific ‘favourable’ outcome. In terms of real effects, people who would otherwise aim to be healthier (which is reaching enlightenment, as far as public health officials are concerned) and eat more fruits and vegetables are effectively being sacrificed on the altar of “collective good”.

This is no surprise when you consider the other half of their ideology is collectivist. To Professor Saxena and many of her co-authors, it doesn’t matter that the risk of moderate drinking to the individual is minute: as she argues, the damage at a population level is considerable, and that is the level at which she analyses the “problem”. It is easy to see that this level of analysis is absurd: populations do not have lives, make decisions, enjoy the benefits and, sometimes, endure the risks, that individuals do. When making our lifestyle choices, it is clearly in our interests to worry about the risk to us as an individual, and not damage at a macro level.

For too long, public health officials have been getting away with prioritising ideology over their duty to serve the best interests of individual citizens. The issue of government dietary advice may seem trivial, but it cannot be overstated that ending the supremacy of the individual in terms of policy-making – and replacing it with abstractions about populations as a whole, represents a dangerous path for society to tread down.

In short – we liberals have a duty to be ruthless in our opposition to collectivism, wherever it rears its ugly head.

Rowan Wright is a mathematics student at the University of Cambridge who is particularly concerned with the rise of nanny state paternalism pertaining to diet. In his free time he enjoys mountaineering, continental cooking and playing the classical guitar.


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