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6 April 2022

We need to eat better — but calorie counts are the worst way to go about it

Is it any wonder we speed-eat junk when food is no longer about enjoyment or conviviality?

By Philippa Nuttall

From today, food menus across England will display how many calories a meal contains. The government says this will help fight the obesity crisis. It won’t. A juicy homemade burger on freshly baked bread is not intrinsically bad for you. Overeating, filling up on fast food, refusing to eat fruit and veg, and living a sedentary life are, however, hugely harmful to our health — and the climate. If the government truly wants to reduce obesity, it must help Britain rethink its relationship with food.

“Some people find the whole matter of eating easy, while others find it hard,” says the food writer Bee Wilson in First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. “Without ever quite having a full-blown eating disorder… I managed to make myself pretty miserable about eating for the best part of a decade.” It is tragic that far too many of us can identify with this state of mind, and calorie warnings will only make it worse.

Food throughout history and literature has largely been associated with having a good time. Think of the magical autumn feast at the end of Finn Family Moomintroll when the inhabitants come together to eat, drink and celebrate before their winter hibernations. Moominmamma certainly doesn’t have calories in mind when she puts “the fat for frying the pancakes in the bath because there weren’t enough basins”, before carrying up 11 “enormous jars” of raspberry jam.

A sense of enjoyment around food has, however, been lost for many in 21st century Britain. People may like to read about families and friends breaking bread, but a third of British families eat less than half their evening meals together each week. Research shows that children who eat regular family dinners also consume more fruits, vegetables and vitamins, and fewer fried foods and soft drinks. Eating together is also good for our brains and general well-being. Eating dinner in front of the TV also makes you more likely to be overweight.

In England, 28 per cent of adults are obese and a further 36 per cent are overweight but not obese. Over 14 per cent of children are obese by the age of four; by the time they are ten a quarter are obese and another 15 per cent overweight. Over a third of kids start secondary school carrying more weight than is good for them. And childhood obesity can have long-term health impacts.

Yet, while Brits are fatter than their European neighbours, with the third highest level of obesity behind Malta and Turkey, they also spend less money on food as a proportion of their total budget. And people are not moving enough. A quarter of adults in England are “physically inactive”, getting their hearts pumping for less than 30 minutes a week.

Sorting out all this is a massive task, but it can be done. And eating better and moving more is not only good for people, but for the climate. Walking and cycling instead of driving is healthier, works up an appetite and reduces emissions. Eating more fruit and vegetables and less processed meat keeps you trimmer and benefits efforts to stop climate change.

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“Eating well is a skill,” writes Wilson. “We learn it. Or not.” Helping people learn this skill requires a holistic approach to health and food. Suggesting that a highly processed low-fat dessert flavoured with artificial sweeteners is better than a pot of creamy full-fat yoghurt simply because it has fewer calories is not the answer.

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