From calorie counts to meal deals, Boris Johnson can’t make up his mind

“Buy one get one free” deals could be banned under government plans to cut obesity. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

When American political activist Ralph Nader famously called McDonald’s double cheeseburger “a weapon of mass destruction” he was on to something.

On this side of the pond too, decades of unhealthy fast – and fat – food eating have left a mark. Around 63 per cent of adults in England are either overweight or obese. Staggeringly, 25.5 per cent of kids in year 6 are obese. Excess weight is 9 per cent points higher in the most deprived areas of England – testament to the fact that it’s often not about choice, but about hardship.

Obesity is a national health crisis that costs lives and burdens an already stretched NHS. Obesity-related illnesses cost more than £6.5bn a year, according to the Department of Health and Social Care. Governments have come up with plenty of obesity strategies – fourteen in the last three decades – but obesity rates have only been rising. The quality of these strategies is debatable – only 9 per cent of them included a feasible budget or predictions of costs. But as Sajid Javid puts prevention at the heart of a plan to reform the health service, obesity is a no-brainer.

And Boris Johnson claims to take obesity very seriously. Yet this week he delayed a decision on banning “buy one get one free deals” on the basis these promotions will help during a cost of living crisis. For avoidance of doubt, this is the same government who, in 2020, admitted these offers actually increase the amount consumers spend by almost 20 per cent.

This isn’t even the beginning of the inconsistency on the plans to slim down Britain. The fear of being perceived as a “nanny state” causes frenetically bad policy decision making within the current Conservative party.

With a Tesco Clubcard, you can buy three Cadbury Caramilk Chocolate Bars for £1.20. The original price of one bar is 70p, so you’re paying that sum instead of £2.10, saving 90p. A bar weighs 37g and has around 200 calories – so three bars are 600 calories. Still in Tesco, with £1.15 you can get a salad with sour cream and chives – that’s 138 calories. The Cadbury is cheap and easy. And because it’s cheap and easy, tomorrow you come back for more.

Yet just last month, the Department for Health and Social Care implemented a policy of calorie labelling. Cafes, restaurants and takeaways with more than 250 employees are now obliged to display calories on their menus – or face a taxing fine of up to £2500. When the policy was first enacted, UKHospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said that the measures came “at the worst possible time for thousands of businesses struggling to survive”.

Mid-size businesses are now caught in a storm of higher costs not only to reprint their menus, but also to calculate the calories of their meals. For healthier businesses who change their menus frequently to provide seasonal dishes, it’s even harder. And activists reminded us of the danger it poses for people who struggle with eating disorders.

There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of shaming people with calories. Its potential for harm – both on businesses having to stump up an extra cost – and on individuals for whom diet culture is already pervasive – far outweighs any real impact on Britons’ health. In the same breath as introducing an incredibly interventionist and burdensome policy, the government has refused to make a decision on a plan which they themselves acknowledge is evidence-based.

The philosophical mismatch between the two decisions is stark.

The UK today is what researchers call an “obesogenic environment”, one that encourages people to overeat and be physically inactive. Putting calories on menus will likely prove a harmful policy with very little impact; a ban on unhealthy deals would have fared much better. Either way, what’s needed is thought-through policy-making tackling the economic, health and social causes of obesity, a coherent strategy based not on attention grabbing headlines, but on sound scientific research.

Whatever the cost, it will be cheaper than the £6.5bn spent every year on obesity-related illnesses. And it will save lives. In his book “Hooked”, Michael Moss writes that we’re feeling “the loss of the beauty, resonance, and rituals of food as it was, before we fell so hard for the convenience and other allures of the highly processed”. Perhaps the solution simply lies in finding back that resonance – and making it affordable.


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