Does counting calories add up to a healthy eating solution?

Calorie-Intake-pyramid-273x300The sheer weight of pressure on the whole food sector, including hospitality, to serve a healthier menu of options is growing almost daily.

The government, health experts, local authorities, pressure groups and doctors’ leaders are all calling on the industry to act now to avert a deepening of the obesity crisis.

Pub and restaurant chains are being urged by councils to introduce signs which spell out the calorie content of food and drink in a bid to beat the obesity crisis.

There were two significant moves in the last week. First up, The Local Government Association (LGA), the mouthpiece of the country’s 370 councils which have responsibility for public health, called on restaurant groups to place calorie count signs prominently on its counters and menus.

While described in some quarters as a radical move, this is in truth no more radical than the recommendations of the Public Health Responsibility Deal. Calorie counting on its own is not the panacea. Restaurants that find the ingredients to make their menus appealing and healthier at the same time are the ones that’ll prosper, with their customers and in the eyes of the guardians of health.

A similar scheme, which has been running since 2008, has already proved a major success in New York City among other cities in the US.

The call comes as the latest research shows the scale of the obesity crisis and its paralysing effects on the nation. The NHS is spending over £1.5 million an hour on diabetes – more than £13 billion a year – and more than 3.5 million children are now classed as overweight or obese.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, chair of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “This is all about enabling people to make informed choices about what they eat and drink. Some retailers are already introducing calorie counts and this is a step in the right direction. But the industry needs to go further, faster so people know how many calories their food and drink contains.

“We are also calling for £1 billion of existing VAT to be given to councils to boost and bolster local preventative schemes and prevent obesity. The effect of this would be twofold: it would help millions of overweight and obese children across the country and hugely ease pressure on the NHS.”

Meanwhile, the spectre of a tax on sugary drinks found its way back on the agenda this last week. The government says it will accept the recommendations of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to halve the current recommended daily intake of sugar to about seven teaspoons. Most people consume at least twice this limit currently.

Interestingly the head of the NHS, Simon Stevens, suggested a potential solution for those in the industry daunted by the challenge of increasing staff costs due to the introduction of the National Living Wage. He recommended the price of sugary drinks should be increased to cover the difference.

Calorie counting doesn’t make for a great meal out. But unless restaurants do embrace healthier menus and communicate them engagingly to their customers, they could be the lesser of two evils – the greater being an even more obese nation.


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