Low calorie diets: An appropriate response to Britain's obesity crisis?


According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘healthy’ describes someone “in a good physical or mental condition; in good health”. Yet supermarkets are conflating this term with low-calorie food products. This misunderstanding is dangerous and encourages negative relationships with food.


Yes, Britain has an obesity problem. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UK is the most obese country in western Europe. In 2015, 26.9% of the UK population had a body mass index of 30 and above, the official definition of obesity. Yet, in response to this crisis, supermarkets and food suppliers have mass produced lines of low calorie food meal labelled as ‘healthy’.


A quote from Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, highlights the problem. In response to the findings of the OECD, Alison said: “We’re working with industry to make food healthier, we’ve produced guidance for councils on planning healthier towns and we’re delivering campaigns encouraging people to choose healthier food and lead healthier lives.”.


That all sounds great, but we need a more precise definition of ‘healthy food’. A simple online search for ‘healthy ready meals’ reveals how the term is being misused. Tesco’s website will show you their ‘Healthy Living’ range, which is synonymous for low calorie meals. The ‘Healthy Living’ Chicken in Mushroom Sauce meal proudly advertises that it contains 298kcal. Similarly, the same search on ASDA’s website will take you to their ‘Good and Counted’ range, which directly conflates counting calories with eating ‘healthily’. Asda’s cottage pie meal from this range has only 246 calories. A search on Sainsbury’s website produces familiar results. Those looking for ‘healthy ready meals’ will find the low calorie ‘Be Good’ range, again directly encouraging shoppers to conflate positive meal choices with low calorie options. The list goes on.


Yet, for the 73% of the nation who are not obese, calorie counting is decidedly unhealthy. The NHS website states that ‘within a healthy, balanced diet, a man needs around 2,500kcal a day to maintain his weight. For a woman, that figure is around 2,000 kcal’. If you divide these requirements into three, equal sized meals per-day, this means a man should eat around 833kcal per meal, and a women 666kcal. In contrast, Asda’s ‘Good and Counted’ 246 calorie meal has less than a third of the energy men need, and less than half of what women require. It is clear that Britain’s supermarkets are perpetuating a distorted meaning of the term ‘healthy’.


This conflation is having a negative consequence on society, particularly young people. Body dysmorphia is prevalent, with just 8% of teenage girls being happy with their appearance. Subsequently, 64% of those under 13 have already been on a diet. These figures are not surprising when supermarkets send the dangerous message that calorie-counting and eating low calorie meals are ‘good’ choices for ‘healthy’ eaters.


In the extreme, such messages could be linked to the rise of orthorexia. This eating disorder is characterised by “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”. While this condition is linked to those who cut out entire food groups and is estimated to only affect 7% of the population, it is related to a misunderstanding of healthy eating. Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, said: "There is a fine line between people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who have orthorexia”. By telling consumers that it is ‘healthy’ to choose foods which contain less than a third of their recommended calorie intake, companies like ASDA are exacerbating this problem.


I am not laying the entire blame for the nation’s body issues on supermarkets. Instagram, fashion lines, and YouTube trends such as ‘raw eating’ also have a huge responsibility for the unhealthy relationship many of us have with food. Neither am I suggesting that supermarkets should stop selling low calorie meals. Rather, retailers should simply advertise these products for what they are: food for those trying to lose weight.


It may be true that Britain is the 'fat man of Europe', but by attempting to fix this problem, supermarkets are creating a generation of young people with an unhealthy relationship with food. Produce low calorie food, but do not label it ‘healthy’. 

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