Calorie counting, sandwich

The 400-600-600 Rule - Should We Be Calorie Counting?

This week Public Health England unveiled their plans to cut calorie consumption in the UK. The new guidelines, which suggest a 400-600-600 rule have been hotly contested by the public, nutritionists, dieticians and other healthcare professionals. These plans are part of the government's strategy to tackle childhood and adult obesity, with 1/3 of children and 2/3 of adults in the UK being overweight or obese, excess weight is an undeniable public health problem. It is estimated that obesity costs the NHS £6.1bn per year and the wider costs to society are even higher, however, is a strategy that recommends restrictive behaviours and calorie counting the right way to tackle this problem?

The scheme is made up of two key parts, one aimed at the food industry and the other providing new guidelines for adults. 

Challenging the food industry to reduce the calories in common products consumed by families by 20%. Products such as pizzas, ready meals, pre-made sandwiches and snacks will be targeted as these make a large contribution to children's calorie intake. This will be achieved by:
  • Changing the product recipes
  • Reducing portion sizes 
  • Encouraging purchase of lower calorie products 

Recommending that adults follow a 400-600-600 rule for their meals, that is 400 calories at breakfast, 600 at lunch and 600 at dinner.
  • The rest of adult's calorie intake will be made up with snacks. 
  • Major brands will advertise foods that meet these guidelines. 

What's the deal?

It is irrefutable that the UK and many other countries are in the middle of a public health crisis and that our diets have a large role to play in the obesity epidemic. Our portion sizes are indeed bigger than ever before and our access to high energy and high fat foods is only growing easier, but is encouraging people to count their calories on a daily basis really the answer? Counting calories and tracking food intake are two behaviours that are at the core of eating disorders, it is all to easy to slip from harmlessly paying attention to obsessively counting and restricting. Public Health England advertising these recommendations also means that groups that are particularly prone to these damaging behaviours, such as young women and teenagers, will be exposed to these views and likely to take them on in the wrong way. Another key problem is that the current calorie guidelines are 2000 a day for women and 2500 a day for men, the 400-600-600 rule adds up to only 1600 calories and while Public Health recommend making the rest of the calories up with snacks this would require a man to eat 900 calories worth of snacks throughout the day! For people who exercise regularly and require more than 2000 or 2500 calories a day, the snack figure would be even higher. 

While getting restaurants and food brands to reduce portion sizes and improve recipes is an achievable goal that will be beneficial, particularly for children's food, applying a 400-600-600 rule on adults places the focus on entirely wrong thing. There is a big difference between 400 calories of cheesy pasta and 600 calories of roast chicken salad with quinoa, avocado and lots of vegetables yet the salad would be labelled as the less healthy option. Nutrition is not defined by calories and all calories are most definitely not equal, instead of focusing on numbers we should be focusing on the nutritional value of our food. Fibre, protein, vitamin and mineral content is a much better indicator of a food's value rather than a simple figure that can be misleading. Educating about food choices is the way forward, not emphasising calorie counts. What does everyone else think?

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