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Is it our fault if we eat too many calories?

Counting is hard. Anssi Koskinen via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The mystery of two conflicting stats was recently solved. On the one hand, official statistics show a decline in calorie consumption across the UK over the last 40 years and, on the other, the population has gained weight over the same period; obesity is on the rise.

The answer comes from the Behavioural Insights Team, a former government policy unit, which reported an increase in the number of people under-reporting the number of calories they consume. People are buying more food and eating as much as 1,000 calories a day more per person than surveys would suggest. And the way that food is marketed offers a number of insights for why this is the case.

The false message from the statistics is not altogether surprising. The main reasons listed in the report are that calorie intake is under-reported, particularly by obese people, increased snacking (which is often not taken into account when people report their calorie intake), and a problem with people eating more than the recommended portion size.

Perhaps what is most surprising about this report is that it has taken so long to work out what is happening. It has been convenient for some to suggest that physical activity has declined, blaming obesity on the failure to burn off the calories we have consumed.

Exercise alone isn’t the answer.

Yet researchers have long known that reducing calorie intake is more important than increased exercise, and some have suggested that obesity and inadequate levels of physical activity should even be considered as separate health problems.

The linking of calories versus exercise has become a too easy way for food companies and retailers to obfuscate some of the more important issues involved in the obesity debate. McDonald’s for example used the marketing slogan “It’s what I eat and what I do” in their campaign to encourage children to lead more active lifestyles. The emphasis is on activity, not cutting back on calories, and sends the message “don’t blame us if you get fat – go running”.

Few of us realise, however, that we need to walk for almost 50 minutes to burn off the calories in a blueberry muffin (which we probably ate along with a small latte – another 200 calories – as a mid-morning snack). Wouldn’t it be better to just take in fewer calories? Easier said than done.

These calories definitely count. Kevin Schraer, CC BY-NC

The report comes at the same time as our obsession with eating reaches new heights. Building on a long line of legends about what food can do for you – Popeye and his spinach, Desperate Dan and his cow pie – also comes the “superfood” fad, a concept that marketers have seized upon.

Certain foods have been given this enticing label in a bid to encourage us to turn to them to improve our health through eating. Science has had a few things to say about the power of spinach or goji berries, however. A recent article in the New Scientist made clear that reliable human-based studies, which support the health-giving claims of many superfoods, are very thin on the ground. As one nutritionist noted: “Superfoods are marketing gimmicks.”

This might not be such a bad thing. These superfoods are healthier than junk food. But for some, one of their side effects has been the “health halo effect”. This is where healthy food is used as an excuse to eat unhealthy food – often alongside each other. A classic example might be eating a salad with French fries on the side. Unsurprisingly, the health halo effect often leads to an increased calorie intake.

The original super foodie. Salim Virji, CC BY-SA

This is not just a task for individuals. Companies need to start doing the calorie counting rather than relying on consumers. I have purposefully not said the solution is simply to “eat less” because it is about time companies owned up to how many more calories there are out there and did something about it. There are two areas in particular that require action; processed foods, and recommended portion sizes.

Portion sizes have increased substantially over the years, and larger portion size is linked with higher calorie consumption. Common examples include individual chicken pies which are now 40% larger than in 1993, and individual chicken curry meals, that are 54% larger.

Plate, bowl and glass sizes have increased too, and inevitably affect the size of the servings – the larger the plate the more food a person consumes. At the same time, recommended portion sizes on packaging are often unrealistic, such as suggesting that one eats only a quarter of a pizza. The pizza has well over 1,000 calories but who eats only a quarter of a pizza?

We are being duped by our cognitive and physical limitations. The nature of much of the processed food we buy has been scientifically developed to make it extremely tasty – with the addition of fat, sugar and flavourings that appeal to the innate human desire for these flavours and textures.

Of course, we could all try to read the small print on the back of packaging and calculate the number of calories we are eating, but a much better solution would be if the companies producing the calories started doing the counting for us. They need to give clear and realistic portion sizes, and reconsider the offers that give us more food for less money on high calorie foods. Until the number of calories in the food we buy is reduced there will be no fall in calorie intake.

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