Causes and consequences of low caloric intake in India: Nutrition, productivity and cognition

Project Active from to Firms

Many of the world’s poor consume very few calories. Because calories are not just consumption, but also an input into production, this low consumption has the potential to dampen labor productivity and impede decision-making. Low caloric intake may therefore play a key role in the productive capacity of the world’s poorest and the firms which hire them. Economic theory in this area is extensive. However, given the inherent challenges posed by the endogeneity of caloric intake and the measurement of productivity, empirical work is less well-developed. The main goal of our research is therefore to generate rigorous causal evidence regarding the impact of low caloric intake on productivity, cognition, and decision-making.

Our previous 211-participant pilot suggests that increased caloric intake results in substantial productivity gains among low-BMI workers. This finding begs the question of why investment remains low despite the fact that even the poor are typically able to afford sufficient calories (Subramanian and Deaton 1996; Banerjee and Duflo 2011). Evidence from surveys and piloting activities suggest a potential driver of inefficiently low caloric intake: incorrect beliefs about the returns to caloric intake and the caloric content of foods. This research thus also aims to explore the relationship between incorrect beliefs and sub-optimal consumption.

The research is intended to inform policy regarding food production, distribution, and consumption. This is an active area of policy debate in India, where 10% of government expenditures are allocated to food subsidies. Such programs would benefit from concrete evidence regarding the impact of increased caloric intake on output and productivity. Furthermore, if a lack of information were found to be significant constraint to adequate caloric intake, it would suggest that addressing this gap could result in a sustainable and easily scalable policy solution.

We plant to conduct outreach activities through close collaboration with our on-the-ground partner, the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR), which maintains strong relationships with policymakers and stakeholders at the local and national levels. Our outreach plan includes publications in mainstream newspapers and research and policy journals, easy-to-understand policy briefs and infographics, blog posts, and conference presentations targeting both policy-makers and academic audiences.

Design and methodology

The study population will consist of 400 cycle-rickshaw peddlers with a body-mass index (BMI) below 20 in Chennai, India. Upon enrolment, participants will be randomly assigned to either a control condition, receiving cash, or a treatment condition, receiving cash and an additional 700 calories per day throughout the course of the study. During the 7-week study period, participants visit the study office daily to report their hours worked and earnings and complete a variety of productivity-related physical and cognitive tests. Productivity will also be directly measured through cycle computers and GPS units attached to the participants’ rickshaws. Finally, a cross-randomization at the fifth week of the study combined with experimental tasks, survey questions, and decisions regarding food consumption will be used to shed light on potential constraints limiting investment and investigate why caloric intake remains low despite potentially high monetary returns.