Britain’s health agency puts country on diet

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The UK has become the first country to challenge the food industry to cut calories in everyday foods by a fifth in an attempt to halt the rising levels of obesity in adults and children.

A report published Tuesday by Public Health England, an agency of the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, shows that overweight or obese boys in England consume 500 excess calories every day. Girls in the same weight category overconsume by 290 calories per day.

In 2015-16, more than one in five children in their first year of school was obese or overweight in England.

The report, “Calorie reduction: The scope and ambition for action,” calls for the food industry to cut calories in core products consumed by families by 20% by 2024.

In a separate initiative, the agency launched its latest One You campaign to persuade adults to eat fewer calories at each meal: 400 for breakfast and 600 each for lunch and dinner, called the 400-600-600 plan.

One You is aimed at getting middle-age adults to lead healthier lives, and it has tackled drinking, smoking and exercise. The new prong aims to make people think about just how many calories they are consuming, particularly outside the home. It estimates that adults consume 200 to 300 calories in excess each day.

Although the calorie reduction program will devise guidelines for foods consumed by children, adults generally eat the same foods, meaning the program will help all family members reduce calorie consumption, the report states.

The campaign is targeting pizzas, ready meals, ready-made sandwiches, meat products, sauces and dressings, composite salads, savory snacks and other “on the go” foods such as meal deals.

Food retailers and manufacturers have been given three ways to reduce the calorie count of these foods: changing the recipe of products, reducing portion size and encouraging consumers to purchase lower-calorie products.

More than 20 firms were involved in a meeting in November to discuss the plan, including Tesco, Subway, PepsiCo and McDonalds.

The next step in the program involves engagement with food retailers; manufacturers; major restaurant, cafe, takeaway and delivery companies; and health and charity sectors to set specific category guidelines. These will be published in mid-2019.

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said the nation was ahead of the game in this area, with other countries “dipping their toes in the water” with plans involving companies pledging to reduce calories on individual items.

But after a sugar reduction plan launched in 2017, in which companies making products directed at children were challenged to reduce sugar content by 20% by 2020, England is now “looking at what’s going on in totality” across the food industry, making companies more accountable.

“It says obesity is a serious matter, and there needs to be changes by food companies if we are going to tackle it, and the changes need to be at a big scale,” Tedstone said.

“No country will solve its obesity problems by having a few healthy options. You have to be able to change the core offer. It’s about a structured approach to doing things as opposed to just giving some health messages.”

After the engagement exercise, what companies do in response to the guidance will be closely monitored.

Under close watch

Tedstone said her agency will be collecting data on what the food industry does to reduce calories, and if the government does not think it is enough, it will consider what to do at that stage.

“Most countries have an obesity problem now, with people consuming more than they need,” she added. “Things can’t go on the way they are.”

Obesity-related treatment costs the National Health Service £6 billion ($8.3 billion) a year. If the 20% target is met within five years, more than 35,000 premature deaths could be prevented and around £9 billion ($12.5 billion) in NHS health care and social care costs could be saved over a 25-year period.

Steve Brine, the government’s public health and social care minister, said the calorie reduction program was the first of its kind in the world.

According to the World Health Organization, obesity has nearly tripled globally since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults over the age of 18 were overweight. Of these over 650 million were obese. In the US, more than one-third (36.5%) of adults are obese.

‘Bold and necessary’

The UK move was welcomed as a “bold and necessary action” by Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Dr. Sonia Saxena, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, said the plans to involve the whole food industry sounded promising.

“Good diet is a major protective factor for health, which will save the health service money in the long term,” she said.

“What could really make a difference is if the lower-calorie options are genuinely healthier, as appealing to families and equally affordable compared with foods available now. Ultimately, families need strong messages to guide them towards making healthy choices about what they put into their kitchen cupboards and into their bodies.”

Dr. Katarina Kos, obesity researcher and consultant in diabetes and weight management at the University of Exeter, added that other challenges that need monitoring.

“The challenge is not just in offering reduced caloric meals but also in stopping further cravings and compensatory meals and behaviors,” she said. “Reducing the salt and sugar content of meals may indeed help us to reduce further cravings and rein in the hunger, which is a good start, but there may be other additives which matter.”