Is putting Britain ‘on a diet’ a healthy approach?

Public Health England (PHE) has told Britain it is time to ‘get on a diet’, in a drive to cut calorie consumption by 20% by 2024. PHE’s chief executive Duncan Selbie 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.” Yet is encouraging only calorie counting a healthy message to be sending?

What is the new health drive targeting?

Part of the new health drive is the launch of the ‘One You’ campaign, which encourages adults to consume 400 calories at breakfast, and 600 at lunch and dinner, adding up to 1600 calories in total. The remaining 400 calories for women and 900 calories for men are advised to be made up of healthy snacks.

Though there is mention of counting calories, there was no mention of educating people on calories, energy and how your body uses food as fuel. 

Related: What are calories and what do they do?

PHE is also targeting the food industry, and the ingredients used by food manufacturers, supermarkets, takeaways and fast food outlets. They have been warned to reduce the calories in foods such as biscuits, bread, cooking sauces, crisps, processed meat products, pasta, sandwiches and soups. If action is not taken, manufacturers could face government fines.  

Public Health England have identified three different ways to tackle the obesity problem in Britain, the first, looking at the third of adults who underestimate the number of calories they are eating. Whilst part of the problem lies in food labelling, which often state the number of calories in ‘one portion’, without making it clear how many portions are inside. When it comes to snacks on the go, research suggests people spend just six seconds looking at food before buying it, so the drive will encourage food manufacturers to make things clearer for consumers.

Related: Not all calories are created equal

The second measure being targeted is the public being ‘tricked’ into buying unhealthy food by businesses pushing unhealthy food and larger portions on shoppers. The tactic used by shops, cafes and restaurants encourages customers to upgrade to larger meals and drinks, or add high-calorie toppings and sides.

The third measure has seen confectionary businesses being warned to cut sugar in cakes, chocolate and cereals by 20% by 2020, or face government sanctions.

What about moving more?

Whilst being aware of the calories you are eating is a healthy move, one thing missing from the six-year plan is a focus on educating the general public on the different types of calories they are eating, and the healthy benefits of moving more.

Not all calories are created equal and foods are not made up of calories alone. A healthy diet incorporates lean proteins, healthy fats and unprocessed carbohydrates like vegetables, beans and fruit. As many health professionals have pointed out, the PHE focus on calorie counting as a whole ignores the true nutritional education that can help sustainable change.

Related - Why should I run? 

Running coach Martin Yelling responded to the PHE plan on his own Twitter account, writing: 

It’s an age-old formula – eating better and moving more will help you lose weight, and running tops the calorie-burning charts. For example, a 66kg woman will burn twice as many calories running at a 10-minute pace compared with walking at a 15-minute-mile pace for the same time. If you want help getting out and running your first mile, why not follow our four-week pre-plan programme for new runners?