“Count calories to tackle obesity” says Public Health England (PHE)

There has been a great media response in the headlines over last weeks announcement from Public Health England (PHE) to use calorie counting and portion control in the fight against obesity. PHE launched their “One You” campaign to address preventable disease in adults and more specifically target the 40% of lifestyle related illnesses and deaths and £11 billion NHS spend on treating illnesses caused by the effects of diet, inactivity, smoking and drinking alcohol. Read more about the campaign here.

On the face of things this would seem like a worthwhile initiative as the facts around obesity and diet-related illnesses in the UK are certainly compelling. The campaign makes some ambitious promises such as “‘One You’ aims to encourage adults, particular those in middle age, to take control of their health to enjoy significant benefits now, and in later life”. And they have announced high profile partnerships with Asda, Slimming World, BBC Get Inspired and the Ministry of Defence. This is where some critics start to feel uncomfortable as inevitably commercial partnerships spell profit somewhere down the line.

So why such an outcry?

Firstly, the premise of this “One You” campaign is based on calorie counting rather than healthy eating. Britons are being encouraged to stick to 400 calories at breakfast, and 600 calories for both lunch and dinner. “Britain needs to go on a diet,” said Duncan Selbie, chief executive at PHE. “The simple truth is on average we need to eat less. Children and adults routinely eat too many calories and it’s why so many are overweight or obese.” PHE has also advised food manufacturers and food chains to cut calories and portion sizes by 20% across their ready meal, fast foods and every day products. The targets will cover High Street restaurants and fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Pizza Express and Subway.

So, rather then empowering the British public to make better food choices, the first arm of this initiative looks to a) dole out the responsibility for calorie counting to food manufacturers and fast food chains and b) encourage the public to eat less rather than eat better. There is no clear reference to the source of calories eaten and from which foods they should come, only numbers for total calorie consumption which could continue to come from low nutrient, high sugar, fast foods. See what the Daily Telegraph had to say here.and the Daily Mail here. I’m not sure how eating 20% less McDonalds will really tackle the obesity crisis?

As a Registered Nutritional Therapy Practitioner mBANT, food education is central to the nutritional advice I regularly give. Calorie counting plays a very small part in this process with the focus instead on types of foods, sources of nutrients, variety of foods and nutrients and their impact on health (and ultimately on weight). Scientists have long argued the energy in / energy out equation and proven time and time again that simply restricting calories does not necessarily equate to weight loss. Instead we should be looking at the type of calories consumed. There is a big difference in the metabolic processing of a nutrient dense apple versus the fast foods targeted in the “One You” campaign. Encouraging the public to eat wholefoods, natural foods, freshly prepared foods would render the calorie debate redundant and open a much more welcome debate on “eating healthily” rather than simply eating less calories!

Living in a Mediterranean country I find the relationship with food to be closer than that in the UK. Food traditions have been better preserved and knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. Food education seems like  a pivotal piece of the puzzle if PHE really want to encourage the current generation to take control of their health. Calorie counting will not inspire change to current food habits. It will not inform the British public on how to make healthier food choices. It simply condones how you currently eat (good or bad) and advises you to eat a bit less. I give regular workshops on healthy eating and the most empowering aspect of these sessions is having participants leave feeling confident about shopping and cooking their next meal. Perhaps PHE could consider putting the British public back in contact with real food instead of negotiating with fast food giants! For now I guess we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with taking the “How are you” quiz and seeing what PHE recommends.

My next workshop “Eating for Health” is Monday 12th March in La Valletta Brianza civic hall.



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