Piece of bread and dill on the plate with fork and knife on tablecloth

    Shrinkflation: coming soon to a restaurant near you

    14 December 2018

    It is less than a year since Public Health England told us that we should be consuming no more than 1,600 calories a day from meals. Specifically, we must limit breakfast to 400 calories while lunch and dinner should be capped at 600 calories. Since grown men are told by the same quango that they should be consuming 2,500 calories a day, this implies that Public Health England wants us to get through 900 calories a day from sugary drinks, snacks and alcohol. Some realistic health advice at last!

    No other country on Earth issues guidelines on how many calories should be in a meal, and there is absolutely no evidence behind PHE’s 400-600-600 rule, but there was method in the agency’s madness. Behind the scenes, it is busy trying to cajole restaurants and cafés into accepting the same policy of shrinkflation and food degradation (AKA ‘reformulation’) that it has foisted on the rest of the food industry. Public Health England insists that there is widespread support for this strategy and so there is – until people taste the results.

    PHE’s 400-600-600 rule may have passed you by. If you noticed it at the time, you probably forgot about it and you almost certainly don’t abide by it. The general public regards the endless hectoring from nanny state busybodies as silly but basically benign. You can ignore their guidelines, and most people do.

    But, as I have said out before, guidelines are not designed to be followed in the world of ‘public health’. They are there to be breached because, once flouted, the government has an excuse to act. The lower they are set, the more people will breach them and the greater the incentive for the state to wield its stick. This is why the sugar guidelines were halved in 2015 and it is why the alcohol guidelines were lowered (for at least the third time) in 2016.

    In neither case was there any scientific justification for moving the goalposts. Similarly, PHE’s limits on how many calories should be in your lunch are wholly arbitrary. They are useful weapons for campaigners and regulators. Nothing more.

    But that is enough, and a study published in the British Medical Journal this week shows how these weapons will be deployed. The authors looked at the calorie count of meals in 27 restaurant chains and declared the results to be ‘shocking’. The average calorie count was 977. Only nine per cent of meals met what the authors describe as ‘public health recommendations for energy content’, ie. PHE’s arbitrary numbers.

    If that were not enough, they also found that 47 per cent of meals served contained an ‘excessive’ number of calories. What is excessive? The authors admit that ‘[n]o international guidelines make recommendations about energy consumption per meal’ and, since there is no definition of ‘excessive’, they made one up themselves:

    ‘Given the lack of consensus on what is an excessive energy content, we defined this as main meals that had 1000 kcal or more, as in a single course this would constitute 50% and 40% of the recommended total number of daily kilocalories for women and men respectively or, viewed in another way, most of the kilocalories that a man or women attempting weight loss is recommended to eat in a day.’

    This is pure flim-flam. So long as you don’t regularly exceed 2,500/2,000 calories a day and get a bit of exercise, it doesn’t make much difference how many calories are in individual meals or snacks. I don’t snack much, for example, and I almost never eat breakfast, so two meals of a thousand calories each are no problem.

    Besides, people go to restaurants to treat themselves. Taste and calories are inextricably linked. Even if you try to eat healthily, you do not necessarily want restaurants to serve nothing but health food.

    The ‘shocking’ BMJ study would be funny if it did not carry such an overt political threat. Interpreting their findings in the most predictable and authoritarian way, the authors conclude that ‘policy levers that result in the food industry reducing the number of kilocalories being sold to consumers are needed’ and ‘measures are now needed to “renormalize” the food environment (for example, by downsizing food product portions)’.

    The authors know full well that this is exactly what Public Health England is working towards, but state regulation of food portions is such an extreme policy that it requires lashings of propaganda before the public will swallow it. The calorie limits announced by PHE last December were plucked out of the air, but they are already being treated as gospel in a major medical journal. It has now been ‘revealed’ that these arbitrary guidelines are being habitually breached in restaurants. Why wouldn’t they be? They have no basis in reality and, in any case, they were only supposed to be recommendations.

    Or so you thought. Recommendations do not stay voluntary for long. Guidelines soon harden to become targets, and targets require ‘policy levers’. Eventually, the targets become legal limits. It scarcely seemed worth complaining about PHE’s ridiculous 400-600-600 rule when it was announced last year, but we can now see it as the Trojan Horse it is.