Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
Gillian Harvey, The Independent
Something very strange happened. I have found myself agreeing with something that Boris Johnson said. Or at least, some of it.
Carrying excess weight appears to increase the risk of coronavirus complications and – with more than 60 per cent of adults in England now overweight or obese – supporting and encouraging healthy weight loss seems a good idea.
I’m also glad to see some acknowledgement in the government’s proposals that tackling obesity can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach: as well as measures aimed to encourage healthier food choices, money is to be invested in the training of “weight-loss coaches” to advise on diet and lifestyle (although it will be interesting to see whether mental health services also receive much-needed additional funding to help those with eating disorders).
But I stopped short of applauding the proposal to add calorie counts to restaurant menus, the suggested ban on advertising of fast-food before 9pm and the move to reduce our temptation to pile our trolleys high with treats by banning bogof offers on chocolate and crisps. Why? Because there really isn’t any point.
Sure, knowing that a korma has 500 more calories than a vindaloo at my local Indian restaurant might inform my food choices slightly, but let’s face it, if I’ve decided to order in a takeaway I’ve already chucked the idea of a healthy choice out of the window – at least for the evening.
The same applies if I decide to work my way through a multipack of crisps in front of the TV – I’m not tucking in because I’m under some illusion that the onion in cheese and onion counts as one of my five a day; and I’m not crunching through the calorie-laden crisps because they’re cheaper than a banana or an apple. Because they’re not.
We may be erring on the side of chubby, but we’re not stupid. People already know that a box of jelly babies is pretty much just sugar in disguise. But you know what? When they reach for their favourite comfort food, they simply don’t care.
In its extreme form, this behaviour needs proper mental health support. But for most, treating ourselves to something we fancy occasionally is fine. Either way, the point is that when we tuck in to the brightly-coloured packets we know exactly what we’re doing.
If the government is to step in, I’d argue that it’s far more important that we address the enemies in our midst. Our supermarkets are stacked high with Trojan horses – calorie laden food masquerading as anything but. Because while it could be argued that each product we buy is labelled with its calorie content, most of us buy into the highlighted claim on the front of the packet rather than inspecting the small print.
And I can’t help but feel that those products that play-up their healthy credentials and sweep other information under the carpet must have a part to play in the obesity crisis.
This was highlighted to me recently when I watched a programme about a well-known chocolate manufacturer producing a version of their product that contained less sugar. It emerged during the course of the programme that the original bar actually contained not many more calories than the new, virtue-signalling version. Whilst reducing sugar should be applauded, it’s important to realise such changes don’t necessarily lighten the calorific load.
Elsewhere in the supermarket, products marketing themselves as having “no added sugar” are suggesting to trusting shoppers a major benefit. But in the small print, it is clear that while they may not have added sugar per se, it doesn’t mean it isn’t already there in a natural form.
Red flags for me personally also include phrases like “lighter taste” (so not particularly lighter in calories then?), “contains real fruit” (while the percentage might not be what you think) or “fat free” (but full of sugar, flavours and bulking agents). In fact, the more a product tries to highlight its healthy credentials, the more I wonder what it might be hiding.
These days, my general rule of thumb is this. If it looks too good to be true, there’s probably a catch. If it’s low fat, it’s probably high sugar. If it’s sugar-free, it’s potentially packed with artificial sweeteners. If it’s claiming to be “light” remember your interpretation of the word may not be the same as the copywriters who created the label. And don’t get me started on granola.
Sadly, when it comes to shedding a bit of weight, the magic solution we’re all waiting for doesn’t exist. And yes, those of us who need to shift a couple of pounds do probably need to be encouraged to make the right choices.
But if these choices are unclear – if, when it comes to weight-loss, we’d have been better off reaching for our favourite treat than the purportedly healthy alternative – then even the most well-intentioned of us don’t really stand a chance.
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