“Britain needs to go on a diet.”
Public Health England are asking Britons to cut calorie consumption to combat growing levels of obesity.
New 400-600-600 guidelines recommend that we limit to 400 calories at breakfast, 600 at lunch and dinner with the remaining recommended intake (to total 2000 calories per day for women, 2500 for men) coming from snacking.
The report, published yesterday, states that the NHS spends £6 billion per year treating obesity-related conditions and that these new guidelines could prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths whilst saving £9 billion in NHS healthcare and social care costs over a 25 year period. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England (PHE), said: “Britain needs to go on a diet. Children and adults routinely eat too many calories, and it’s why so many are overweight or obese.”
Although the report has been supported by Cancer Research UK, who say that obesity is the UK’s biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking and is linked to 13 different types of the disease, I worry that this is a simplistic and outdated way to advise on diet, drawing focus to a single aspect of food that isn’t necessarily related to health or nutrition. I heard a panelist on Radio 4 condemning hummus for being too calorific and winced at the reference - not just because hummus is my BAE! Low calorie does not mean nutrient dense and neither is the opposite true: natural high calorie foods can be rich in goodness and, unless eaten in excess, can contribute to a healthy diet.
PHE is not only putting the onus on the individual though: the food industry has been told to cut calories in processed foods by 2024 or expect to be “named and shamed”. The food industry has been given three suggestions on how to meet the new guidelines:
- Reduce portion size.
- Encourage consumers to purchase lower calorie products by highlighting meals that meet the 400-600-600 limits.
- Change product recipes.
Portion reduction may be helpful but the danger is in recipe modifications: food producers, who are profit-orientated businesses, may hope to sustain sales by supplementing high calorie ingredients with low-cal synthetic additives. We saw something like this with a rise in sugar replacements, including aspartame, after the sugar tax was introduced. These ingredients can be nutritionally barren and even harmful to health.
There are other concerns: a fixation with calorie intake can lead to a negative relationship with food based around anxiety and shame, contributing to binge/purge behaviours or other patterns of disordered eating. Obesity is rarely just a result of consuming too much; overeating is a complex issue that often has an emotional aspect that may have endured for many years.
My main concern is that this new advice seems to have a misplaced emphasis. The naturopathic approach to nutrition is to maximize nutrient intake through a variety of natural wholefoods and to eat as much as you need to support your personal metabolism (not all men/women require the same). In simple terms: to maintain a healthy weight, eat a diverse range of naturally produced foods, engage in regular exercise and get enough rest. Without education around healthy nutrition and multi-faceted support for people who struggle to maintain a healthy weight it’s tricky to see how this will work.