The reinstatement of calories as king in the post truth world, and why it won’t stop obesity.

If you were listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently, you’ll have heard the nation’s chief nutritionist telling us all about how they plan to limit calories and portion sizes of ready meals as a bid to try and halt the obesity crisis in the UK, especially in childhood. Apparently the war on sugar didn’t go too well, and the expected results didn’t transpire (in the 9 months they gave it to work).

I hold out zero hope that this approach will work, and would venture to suggest that we’re starting out from the wrong place in tackling this critical health problem. In order to keep the message clear Dr Tedstone has reverted to the “calories in, calories out” approach, so that it’s super simple to understand. However, to quote Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Encouraging consumers to focus simply on calories leads people to eat a diet that is laden with foods that have a minute nutrient density, and which create insulin spikes and crashes, meaning that we get hypoglycaemic. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Rice Cake Diet (seriously, I’ve seen this in the wild. It’s crazy!!). What do we reach for when we get the hangry? Some more fast carbs! And so the cycle continues, and insulin resistance followed by metabolic syndrome followed by Type 2 Diabetes doth ensue.

So they cut portion size…

Anyone who’s ever seen a supermarket curry will attest that if you get 5 pieces of meat the size of an oxo cube you’re doing well! Do you think they’ll cut back on the amount of cheap sugary insulin inducing rice and fillers, or the more expensive protein elements? All that will happen is that the consumer will buy additional side dishes, again unlikely to provide any nutrition, just more empty calories. Enforcing smaller portions may sound sensible, but if that means that an hour later the deprived diner is reaching for snacks, you’ve completely defeated the object.

We seem to be in the midst of a backlash against “clean eating” at the moment

Over the weekend I saw a blog post on Facebook showing a hand holding a load of almonds, and a load of fruit pastels, with the identical number of calories as the headline. I get the point – it was ‘don’t think that the healthy option is a low calorie option’.

But what she failed to point out was that eating a handful of almonds will furnish you with 8g protein, 19g healthy fats, 106mg calcium, 90mg magnesium, and 1.4mg iron. It will not cause your blood sugar to spike, nor will it add a load of sugar to your intestines to upset the microbiota. Healthy guts, by the way, are an essential part of being a healthy weight. But then they probably don’t teach you that if you didn’t study nutrition! Was the author qualified in nutrition in any way? No she was not.

Of course it’s about balance, and if you want the odd fruit pastel occasionally, by all means have a couple after a balanced meal with plenty of protein. But a handful as a snack? NOOOOOOO!!!! It’s also highly addictive, and if you’re struggling to maintain a healthy approach to food, this sort of advice can unravel all your best intentions.

What would control the obesity crisis?

Teaching people to cook. The obesity crisis just happens to coincide with the demise of home economics in schools, where actual food was cooked from scratch, using real, cheap plentiful foods. Teaching people where food comes from and making them passionate about ingredients! Educating people how to make a balanced meal – understanding the major food groups. Cooking at school is nothing more than compiling a bunch of ready made ingredients now, and anyone whose parents don’t cook at home, won’t stand a chance of being educated in this essential aspect of healthy living at school. They might be able to top a pizza, but that’s about it!

Whilst I appreciate that after a long shift you don’t feel like preparing a meal, if we taught people about batch cooking and planning ahead, the need doesn’t arise! A wild salmon fillet from a budget supermarket with stir-fried veg and some brown rice takes 20 mins – 10 if you ditch the rice!

When you see small children going to school eating a bunch of crisps or a Twix for their breakfast, you have to ask yourself whether cutting the size of a ready meal will make the slightest bit of difference. And the calorie counting logic would tell us that actually a bag of crisps is just as good as a boiled egg and soldiers, but we know from our teachers that kids who have a proper protein-fuelled breakfast work better, concentrate longer and take fewer sick days.

In these dark post truth days, I think it’s up to nutritionists and dieticians who have the ear of government, to stand up to the processed food moguls and tell it like it is. The Obesity Crisis may not have a simple elegant solution, but when it really boils down to EAT REAL FOOD, how hard can it be?

Rant over…