When Brits woke on the morning after Christmas Day, still stuffed with turkey and chocolate, many would’ve read the scoop from the Daily Telegraph, outlining plans to cap the calories on restaurant and family meals. Proposals from Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, suggest (among other things) that sandwiches and main meal salads should be capped at 550 calories, a limit of 544 calories be imposed on ready meals and restaurant main courses be restricted to 951 kcals. Dr Alison Tedstone, the organization’s chief nutritionist, warned that the food industry has a “responsibility to act,” in response to rising obesity levels. Similar calorie caps on restaurant meals and takeaways have already been published in Scotland.
Research published by the British Medical Journal last year suggests that the cap would mean sweeping changes to our evenings out. The BMJ found that sit-down restaurant meals contained an average of 1,033 calories, more than meals at fast food chains, which averaged 751—a statistic designed to produce headlines, but which, I suspect, will shock very few. The study’s authors conclude that the “energy content of a large number of main meals in major UK restaurant chains is excessive, and only a minority meet public health recommendations.” Is anyone surprised?
The proposed restrictions on eating out should offend any self-respecting glutton, hedonist or bon viveur, but you needn’t be a big eater to be appalled. For the overwhelming majority of people, a meal out at a restaurant is a semi-regular treat. One might end up indulging in a larger than average number of calories—unless three courses and a bottle of wine is par for the course in your household, in which case, I salute you. Unless you’re spending a lot of money at a top-end establishment, the portion sizes are far larger than most would serve at home, and the plates usually follow suit: giant, oval platters instead of the sensible, circular kind in your kitchen cupboard. But, despite the generous servings, the battle for our waistlines is not lost there.
Most of our unnecessary weight, as I and other obese people will tell you, is gained in the home, through poor meal choices, extra snacks and little exercise to balance it out. Meals out are the exception for most, not the rule. If the UK government and the associated public health industry really want to address the issue, why not legislate the trip to the supermarket, too, where the damage is really done? A maximum cap on shopping baskets, with official exemptions provided only with proof of a family get-together or evidence of multiple offspring. Chocolate gateau for one? I don’t think so, Sir, not with that prawn ring and those mini-pizzas. Pick two, get a girlfriend or get out. I’m joking, of course. But the instinct to cap the calorie counts on restaurant foods should sound as ridiculous as assigning an individual calorie quota to the weekly shop.
When the proposals dropped, I’d not long returned from a trip to Germany, where I’d gone to indulge in the famous Christmas markets. Among the hordes of frankfurters, crepes, stollen, bratwurst and kebabs—plenty of which would come under the chop (or find themselves radically reduced) under proposed UK legislation—was a near absence of fat people. I was probably the second or third fattest person I saw. One man who was bigger than me might even have been English, I couldn’t quite tell.
The simple fact is: the Germans were surrounded by high-calorie food, and yet they seemed much skinnier than my British compatriots. The numbers support this: in 2016, the UK was the 33rd fattest nation on earth, while the Germans came in at only 73rd. A cursory look at not only German cuisine, but also the range of indulgent treats on offer, throws into doubt the idea that casting out high-calorie food from the public realm is necessary or effective. The Germans are no less exposed to modern culinary vices or the conveniences of technology that encourage our increasingly sedentary lives. They have takeaways, streaming services, cars and desk jobs, as well as those peddlers of portliness: restaurants. And yet, despite this similarity across all developed countries, obesity rates vary wildly. In 2017, among adults in Japan, the rate was less than four per cent; in the same year in the United States, it was thirty-two per cent.
If these calorie caps on meals were to come into place, an unintended consequence would be food in Britain that is forced to taste worse. Restaurants and food retailers will not sacrifice portion size easily—eating out is expensive as it is, without reducing what you get for the price you pay—so the result will be food that contains fewer calories but that is (in many cases) as large, or almost, as before. Because the law will demand the seller of that food to forgo higher-calorie (and often better tasting) recipes, many food scientists whose job it is to design the meals of supermarkets and restaurant chains will opt for (usually) less appetizing alternatives to bulk the food up. The culinary reputation of England is low enough as it is, we don’t need to make it any worse by imposing a uniquely totalitarian form of calorie counting, which the rest of the world is unlikely to follow.
In the UK at least, the last few decades have seen many positive developments in public health. Not all of the ideas adopted are as kooky as an outright ban on indulgent meals out. Many restaurants are now required by law to provide information on the approximate number of calories each meal contains and supermarkets must have similar information on their food labeling. The reasons are obvious. A premium-range chicken Caesar salad packaged with the caption Best For You might very well be healthy looking and therefore seem like a wise choice for anyone watching their girth—without the accompanying nutritional information (now required by law), you wouldn’t know that it consists of mountains of chicken and mayonnaise and is anything but a low-calorie option. Legislation like this allows facts about nutrition to cut through the marketing and gives consumers the power to make healthier and more informed choices about the food they eat.
In the UK, the advertising of high-calorie and high-sugar food has been banned on children’s television for over a decade. The same has long been true of alcohol and tobacco and, to most people, this represents a positive change from the frankly libertine attitudes of the mid-twentieth century. Libertarians will disagree, but the price you pay for the vast majority of the population having historically unprecedented access to unlimited choice and quantity of food—deep-fried, drenched in cheese or covered in caramel at your convenience—are laws like these. There is nothing wrong with a public health policy that looks to subtly discourage unhealthy behavior, disseminate the latest science and provide accurate information about consumables. Especially when the manufacturers and sellers of those products are less than keen to do so on their own.
The problem is when these sensible moves drift towards the totalitarian. The banning of smoking in public places offended many at the time, but is undoubtedly a habit that—in enclosed spaces—affects more than the individual choosing to partake in it. It irritates throats and noses and can leave a room reeking—without mentioning the increased risk of cancer, emphysema and other illnesses. Choosing to follow your sixteen ounce T-bone steak with an obnoxiously large ice-cream sundae will inconvenience nobody but yourself.
These recommendations from Public Health England appear stooped in the minutiae of what constitutes optimal calorie intake, but seem completely detached from the sociological reality of how we eat outside the home. For example, knowing you were going to indulge in a mountain of meat, dairy and sugar that evening, it is more than likely that you abstained from lunch or only had a snack. Especially if you’re paying a lot of money—why risk not finishing it all? It is equally true that many won’t behave this way, of course. Some will attempt to atone for their sins after the fact, whilst others won’t alter their behavior at all. A lucky few will blithely consume the equivalent of a large horse and feel no adverse effects to their waistline whatsoever. The point is: indulgence isn’t an isolated incident, it happens in a context. Our aim must be to alter the bigger picture.
Perhaps the greatest problem with these proposals is that they don’t just penalize unhealthy indulgence in the form of taxes (as we do with cigarettes) but actually prohibit the behavior altogether. The term nanny state seems to apply here. The first purpose of food will always be nourishment, but it is also undeniably about pleasure—especially when we leave our kitchens and let others cook for us in the company of family and friends. To prevent the sale of some cooked food based solely on richness and abundance is infantilization, pure and simple. Fundamentally, we must be free to indulge and to wander, however frequently, into bad—yet ultimately innocent—choices.