Public Health England targets calories in new obesity drive

Public Health England targets calories in new obesity drive

New research from Public Health England indicates that across the lifespan, we are all eating too many calories every day in England.

Most of us know the recommended guidance on calorie intake – 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men, with variable amounts for children to support sufficient and healthy growth and development as the grow into adults.

However, published in a new report yesterday Public Health England has revealed that boys and girls of an unhealthy weight consume up to 500 and 290 calories more than they should per day. There was a recent study out that suggested adults also consumed more calories than recommended, roughly 200-300 calories in excess every day.

Weight gain does not happen overnight and is caused by a multitude of reasons. However, in many cases it can be a gradual accumulation, as a result of too many calories in and for many of us, not enough calories out. Alongside consuming excess calories, many of us are living sedentary lifestyles and partake in little physical activity. This results in an energy imbalance and plays an important role in the development of obesity. We all know that the UK is facing a major challenge in the levels of obesity – over 1/3 of children leave school an unhealthy weight, and almost 2/3 of adults are either overweight or obese. This can have huge implications on our short term and long term health, including an array of preventable illnesses, and for children they can experience low self-esteem and stigmatisation during their important school years.

Today PHE have announced they will be challenging food manufactures to reduce the amount of calories by 20% in 6 years, in 13 different food products; including ready meals, pizzas, meat products and savoury snacks.

They are encouraging the food industry to tackle this by three steps:

  • Reformulation: similar to what we have seen with many beverage companies in response to the sugar tax and the salt reduction programme. Companies will be advised to change the recipe of their products in order to contain less calories.
  • Portion size: Research has shown that portion sizes have increased significantly over the years, and this can have a significant impact on the amount of calories we consume. Research by the British Heart Foundation in 2013 found that the size of a shepherd’s pie ready meal increased by a staggering 98% in 20 years, and a pre-prepared lasagne increased by 39% in 20 years. This has been named as one of the many contributors to the obesity crisis, therefore Public Health England are recommending food manufacturers reduce portion sizes in a bid to cut calorie intake.
  • Low calorie options: Public Health England are encouraging companies to encourage consumers to purchase lower calorie products in the product range.

According to Public Health England, these targets could save 35,000 premature deaths and reduce the burden on the NHS by £3.5bn.

Public Health England have also launched a new phase of their One You campaign, which provides guidance on how we can be more calorie-aware. The guidance recommends we stick to 400, 600 and 600 calories for our breakfast, lunch and dinner meals respectively. For example, a typically full English breakfast contains roughly 800 calories. One slice of avocado on toast however only contains 380 calories, which fits in line with the new guidelines.

Next steps of the programme will target the whole food industry, including restaurants, retailers, café’s, takeaways to develop category guidelines. Recent research has suggested that displaying calorie information on menu’s cuts calorie intake by 12%, which could be a potential route to engaging with the hospitality industry to help their customers makes healthier, informed choices.

Whilst this is positive step towards engaging with the food industry to create healthier products and help make consumers more aware of the calories in pre-packaged foods, we do have some considerations. Yesterday, nutritionist at Food Active Beth Bradshaw was interviewed on BBC Radio Merseyside Drive Time programme to discuss these considerations, which you can listen to by following the link below (51 mins onwards).

Firstly, obesity is not caused alone by calories, therefore we need a wide range of initiatives to tackle obesity and help the population live a healthier and better quality of life. The introduction of the sugar tax and sugar reduction programme are commendable measures as part of the wider childhood obesity strategy, but more needs to be done to restricting children’s exposure to junk food marketing that promotes products high in fat, sugar and salt. In spite of the overwhelming evidence, the Government have been reluctant to respond to the calls for a 9pm watershed of junk food marketing on TV (led by the Obesity Health Alliance, of whom Food Active is a member). A recent study found that children are still significantly exposed to unhealthy food and drink advertising through general audience viewing, which Ofcom restrictions do not apply to.

Secondly, the 20% reduction targets are operating on a voluntary basis. From experience, namely the Public Health Responsibility Deal in 2011, voluntary pledges and action have often had little impact on public health. There is no legislation that legally binds food manufacturers to these committments, therefore stringent monitoring must be carried out to measure whether the food industry has responded. However, Public Health England have said if there is little response, they will ‘name and shame’ the brands who have not co-operated and will be prepared to ask the Government to legislate.

Another consideration is the commerical partners that PHE have teamed up with. The likes of Subway and McDonalds – two well known international fast food outlets selling energy-dense, nutrient poor foods. The campaign is working with these outlets to provide meal options which fit in with the 400-600-600 calorie guidance which are promoted in store and also in advertisements across the country. Many have raised concerns about this relationship between PHE and notoriously unhealthy food outlets, and whether this conveys the correct message to consumers.

Finally, the One You 400-600-600 guidance aligns to the ‘counting calories’ approach to weight loss and dieting. Many health professionals have spoken out in criticism of this approach, claiming is does not create a healthy relationship with food. This could also be potentially damaging for those who suffer with eating disorders. Furthermore, the quality of calories is an important factor that must be considered. There are other factors than just calories than are used to determine whether a product is a healthier choice or not. There is certainly more to healthy eating than calorie counting and what we eat is more important than how much we eat. The 400-600-600 guidelines should be used to help consumers be more aware of the calories contained within pre-prepared food products, but by no means should it be the golden role to how much we eat.

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