Lets talk about food not nutrients

Susan Jebb

No surprises that the media launched into 2014 with its customary focus on food and dieting! It’s a great annual opportunity to talk to the public about food and health and this year it was sugar in the spotlight.

There is no doubt that sugar adds calories to our diet – calories that most of us could do without. And too many calories lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Cutting back on added sugar is an obvious place to trim calories and usually without compromising other essential nutrients. But it’s not the only way. Fat accounts for far more calories in our diet than sugar, yet years of low fat diets have shown that focusing solely on fat doesn’t solve all the problems either. It’s time we got away from this reductionist approach and focused on food not individual nutrients.

That’s why, in the Responsibility Deal, we don’t have specific pledges for companies to cut sugar or fat. Instead we ask the food producers, retailers and the hospitality sector to help consumers to cut calories. And 38 companies have responded with diverse commitments to cut calories in a way which works best for their particular foods and drinks. Many retailers are cutting the fat content of their ready meals, while several drinks manufacturers have committed to reducing the sugar content of their products by at least 5%. Confectionery companies have reduced the portion size, keeping the same product we love, but helping us to eat a little bit less of it.

This is an encouraging start but there is undoubtedly much more that can be done. I shall continue to urge more companies to step forward and commit to reducing calories, particularly businesses on the high street. They need to take a careful look at how they can encourage their customers to choose smaller portions and swap to lower calorie options.

If we want to maximise progress in tackling obesity we need to keep our eye on the right ball. In the RD we have been clear that it’s the total calories that matter more than fat or sugar alone. And that means that everyone in the food industry has a part to play – everyone can do something.

We need to be clear with consumers too – when we go to the supermarket or out for a meal we choose foods not nutrients. And to really tackle obesity we need to talk about the importance of increasing physical activity to burn off some more energy as well. When we begin taking this kind of holistic approach, there is some hope that we will be able to make real progress in tackling obesity.

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