One of the headlines yesterday was “Calories in popular foods must be cut, say health officials”. The accompanying article says that Public Health England is about to set calorie targets for many foods and drinks in an effort to reduce childhood obesity. Food manufacturers can do this by reducing portion sizes or by changing ingredients. On the surface of it, a good idea which could work. However, I think there is a larger underlying issue: The types of foods British people eat on a daily basis.
The popular foods quoted? Pizzas, burgers and ready meals. Apparently these are now staple foods in the British diet. The problem is, restaurants know what we like – lots of fat and lots of sugar. To encourage repeat business, these foods often contain far more fat, salt, and sugar than you would ever add if you made the dish yourself. Clearly getting these companies to reduce amount of fat and sugar in their food, and therefore calories, would be a big help. But the real question is, why are people eating these foods so often?
I feel there is a deeper issue here, one no one likes to talk about. Simply put, the traditional British diet isn’t that healthy. Look at foods like fish and chips, pork pies, or sausages and mash. The focus is on fatty and processed meats (think sausages) and white carbohydrates (like pastry and chips). If you do get lean meats such as fish or chicken, they are served battered or breaded (like fish fingers or chicken nuggets) and often deep fried. And aside from the odd portion of peas, there are very few vegetables.
While there is still debate as to the causes of the obesity epidemic, there are clearly some foods which are healthier than others. There is solid research showing a diet high in vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meats reduces the risk of many diseases, including obesity. Sadly, few British dinners will have any of these.
Until there is a mental shift away from thinking fish fingers and chips is a great meal for children, simply reducing the number of calories in processed foods will not stop the obesity epidemic.