The obe­sity cri­sis is be­ing fu­elled partly by our fond­ness for eat­ing out,

The Scotsman - - Scottish Perspective - writes Jane Bradley

Last week­end, I had a rare treat: a to­tally free two days in Lon­don stay­ing with an old friend. Al­though we saw a bit of art and in­dulged in a smidgen of the­atri­cal cul­ture, what we ac­tu­ally spent most of our time do­ing was wan­der­ing round on foot, chat­ting and eat­ing our way through ev­ery­thing that the English cap­i­tal had to of­fer.

We in­dulged in a de­li­ciously flaky Ser­bian bu­rek (strangely far tastier than the ver­sion I had in ac­tual Ser­bia a few years ago) at a street food mar­ket, ate plates of dim sum and spicy noo­dles and munched our way through var­i­ous forms of shar­ing plat­ters – from mini In­di­an­in­spired dishes to tiny Italia-themed bites. We drank umpteen cof­fees, a few glasses of wine and gob­bled Por­tugese tarts like they were go­ing out of fash­ion. Do I have any idea how many calo­ries I con­sumed that week­end? I haven’t a clue. To be fair, as well as all the gas­tro­nomic in­dul­gence, we also hiked more than 26,000 steps a day, ac­cord­ing to the step counter on my phone, so we prob­a­bly de­served it.

If the UK Gov­ern­ment gets its way, I will be far more aware of the enor­mous amount of food I con­sume next time I go to visit my friend in Lon­don, as English restau­rants look set to have to list calo­rie counts on their menus un­der moves mooted by the Depart­ment of Health. This doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

The idea, of course, is to make peo­ple more aware of what they are eat­ing, in a bid to com­bat the grow­ing (par­don the pun) obe­sity cri­sis. While the move would be de­volved and there­fore would not af­fect Scot­land im­mi­nently, we can­not ig­nore the fact that our obe­sity cri­sis is no bet­ter – and is ar­guably ac­tu­ally worse – than that of our friends south of the bor­der. If it works in Eng­land, the pow­ers that be up here could also con­sider it at some point in the fu­ture.

Yet, re­searchers in other coun­tries where calo­rie counts have al­ready been manda­tory have ac­tu­ally found that the rul­ing makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence. In the US, all chain restau­rants with more than 20 out­lets

have been re­quired to list calo­ries since May this year, fol­low­ing leg­is­la­tion mooted four years ear­lier. Vend­ing ma­chines, cinema pop­corn and even bars also have to post calo­rie counts – in­clud­ing those con­tained in al­co­holic drinks.

How­ever, the prac­tice has been fol­lowed in New York City for a few years now. A study car­ried out in 2015 by New York Univer­sity re­searchers used re­ceipts and sur­veys at fast-food chains Mcdon­ald’s, Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s to track cus­tomer pur­chases. In NYC, where menus were la­belled, the amount of calo­ries con­sumed av­er­aged be­tween 804 and 839 per meal. In neigh­bour­ing New Jersey, how­ever, where restau­rants did not have to la­bel calo­ries, meals typ­i­cally ran at 802 to 857 calo­ries. Not a huge dif­fer­ence.

Where the prob­lem lies is that eat­ing out has be­come a way of life, rather than an oc­ca­sional treat. We all re­mem­ber the Sex and the City episode where Car­rie Brad­shaw re­vealed that she used her oven as ex­tra shelves for sweater stor­age: she lit­er­ally never cooked. At the time – less than 20 years ago lest we for­get – the idea seemed laugh­able and some­thing that only a crazy, fic­tional New Yorker could do, an idea as seem­ingly fic­tional as the enor­mous dis­pos­able in­come she gen­er­ated from a sin­gle news­pa­per col­umn.

Yet, now for many, it is not so ridicu­lous. Re­search pub­lished last year by polling firm Min­tel found that the num­ber of con­sumers buy­ing lunch to eat out of the home for an ev­ery­day oc­ca­sion rock­eted last year to 76 per cent, up from 64 per cent in 2016.

Yet, if you don’t eat out and you cook from scratch most of the time, it turns out it is ac­tu­ally fairly tricky to overeat. I picked a day when I knew I would be pre­par­ing all of my meals at home and searched the in­ter­net to find out how bad my diet ac­tu­ally was. That night, I made a Jamie Oliver Sri Lankan fish curry for my fam­ily’s din­ner, which the recipe told me was un­der 400 calo­ries a por­tion – in­clud­ing the co­conut rice.

As that was my main meal (and very fill­ing it was too), I would have to work fairly hard to make up my daily to­tal to the rec­om­mended al­lowance for an adult woman of 2,000 kcal a day. I helped my­self along by grab­bing a bag of crisps from the vend­ing ma­chine at work (205 kcal) and had a fill­ing packed lunch (around 280 kcal for the tuna sand­wich, an­other 200 for two pieces of fruit and 111 for a yo­ghurt), yet I still only made it to less than 1,200 kcal for the day, in­clud­ing my break­fast of ce­real and milk.

Ob­vi­ously, I’m not eat­ing fish and veg­etable curry ev­ery day. Some­times, even on a cook­ing-at-home day, we might have mac­a­roni cheese – my daugh­ter’s favourite – which on­line cal­cu­la­tors tell me is likely to be more like 500 kcal for a typ­i­cal por­tion. Yet this still only pushes me up to 1,300 or so. If I have an ex­tra help­ing, maybe add an­other 200kcal. Ac­cord­ing to these es­ti­mates, I still have plenty of room to in­dulge in a fair bit of be­tween-meal eat­ing and still not eat to ex­cess.

Yet, when you eat out, the calo­rie count sud­denly be­gins to shoot up. I dread to think what my count was at the week­end.

Restau­rants want to make things taste de­li­cious, it is how they get peo­ple to re­turn. A French restau­rant is likely to cook things in large amounts of but­ter – and driz­zle more over the top for good mea­sure. Your In­dian take­away is likely to con­tain quite a lot of oil.but oh, doesn’t it taste good?

A re­cent study car­ried out by Obe­sity Ac­tion Scot­land found that one chippy in Glas­gow is sell­ing por­tions of chips which con­tain over 1,500kcal – close to a whole day’s al­lowance.

How­ever, what we need to do is not stick calo­rie counts on restau­rant meals which make us feel guilty when we’re en­joy­ing an oc­ca­sional treat.

We just need to try to eat more healthily the rest of the time. Our wal­lets, as well as out waist­lines, would be far hap­pier.

The fic­tional Car­rie Brad­shaw and friends met for lunch on a reg­u­lar ba­sis in

Sex and the City, but the real ac­tors may have a dif­fer­ent, health­ier kind of diet

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