UK health body calls on industry to cut calories by 20 percent in aim to curb obesity 


06 Mar 2018 --- Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have unveiled a new plan to help people cut excessive calories from their diets, as part of the government’s strategy to curb childhood and adult obesity. The health bodies are challenging the food industry to reduce calories in products consumed by families by 20 percent by 2024. The UK Food and Drink Federation has responded positively to the plan, and further highlighted its continued commitment to supporting the fight against obesity.

By launching the latest One You campaign, the health bodies are encouraging adults to consume 400 calories at breakfast, and 600 for lunch and dinner. Currently, UK adults are consuming 200 to 300 calories in excess each day.

“Obesity affects us all, as it is a burden on the NHS and local authorities. The NHS spends around £6 billion (US$8.3 billion) a year treating obesity-related conditions. Obesity-related health problems also keep people out of work, stifling their earnings and wider economic productivity,” PHE notes.

The government’s challenge to the food industry is set out in Calorie reduction: the scope and ambition for action, published today, by PHE. 

As with the sugar reduction program, PHE sets out three ways for industry to reduce calories, namely by changing the recipe of products, reducing portion size and encouraging consumers to purchase lower calorie products. Categories of food covered by the program include pizzas, ready meals, ready-made sandwiches, meat products and savory snacks.

According to government data, more than 35,000 premature deaths could be prevented and around £9 billion in NHS healthcare and social care costs could be saved over a 25 year period if the 20 percent target is met within five years.

The report also includes new data on children’s daily calorie consumption. Depending on their age, overweight and obese boys consume between 140 to 500 calories too many each day and for girls, it is 160 to 290 when compared to those with healthy body weights. Adults consume on average 200 to 300 calories too many each day.

“The simple truth is on average we need to eat less. Children and adults routinely eat too many calories and it’s why so many are overweight or obese,” says Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of PHE. “Industry can help families by finding innovative ways to lower the calories in the food we all enjoy and promoting UK business leadership on the world stage in tackling obesity.”

“There can be no doubt that obesity is now one of our greatest challenges – one that is fueling an epidemic of preventable illnesses like type 2 diabetes and cancer,” says Steve Brine MP, UK Public Health and Social Care Minister. “We have a responsibility to act, which is why we are supporting families to make the healthy choice. Our calorie reduction program – the first of its kind from any country in the world – will continue to build on the progress of our world-leading childhood obesity plan, which has led to positive steps by industry.”

“It’s hard for people to make healthy food choices, whether for themselves or their families. That’s why we are challenging the food industry to take 20 percent of the calories out of everyday foods, building on their good work on salt and promising announcements on sugar,” says Dr. Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE.

“The 20 percent reduction target is the result of analysis of the new calorie consumption data, experience of sugar and salt reduction programs, and more than 20 meetings with the food industry and stakeholders."

The next step in the program involves engagement with the whole food industry such as retailers, manufacturers, major restaurants, cafés, takeaway and delivery companies, and health and charity sectors, to develop category guidelines. These will be published in mid-2019.

The UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) issued a statement welcoming the report on calorie reduction, while further pointing out that its members had over the past years taken steps to reduce calorie content.

“We warmly welcome the government outlining its calorie reduction ambitions in today's report. FDF has long advocated an approach to tackling obesity which looks beyond individual nutrients and instead primarily focuses on calories,” says Ian Wright CBE, FDF Director General.

“It's encouraging too to see that the government's renewed focus looks not just at the food and drink bought for consumption at home, but also at takeaways, restaurants and cafés,” Wright says.

“FDF and its members take their responsibility in tackling obesity seriously. For the last decade the UK's food and drink companies have been reformulating their products to reduce sugar, calories, fat and salt, as well as limiting portion sizes. In fact, over the last 5 years FDF members have reduced calorie content in the average basket by 5.5 percent,” he concludes.

UK lobby group Action on Sugar has applauded the plans but adds that proper and transparent enforcement of all policies are of the utmost importance.

"We applaud PHE’s plans to reformulate and cut excess calories consumption in what could be a groundbreaking campaign. However, in order for it to be successful, it is imperative that the 20 percent calorie reduction targets are properly enforced and transparent. We also need clear guidance from Government on what will happen if the food industry fails to comply, as it is vital that the industry is given a level-playing field and all companies, both retail and Out of Home, fully co-operate,” says Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar.

“Furthermore, whilst the One You campaign is a good rule of thumb, it won't go far enough as an educational campaign in terms of changing consumer behavior, especially when targeting the socially deprived who are at most risk of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. There is also a danger that this awareness campaign could simply be used as a marketing tool by food retailers and the Out of Home sector to sell more products,” he adds.