Tuesday 2 January 2018

Public Health England: attention-seeking trolls

Last week, Public Health England was reported to be changing the calorie guidelines to a system by which you have no more than 400 for breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for tea. This amounts to 1,600 calories a day, and there was a suggestion that people could have another 200 calories in snacks.

This was reported first in the Daily Mail and was not accompanied by an official statement, leading some people to think that it was either #fakenews or (more likely) that PHE were flying a kite to see what the reaction would be.

The reaction was mostly laughter and PHE issued a statement the following day to insist - as Theresa May might say - that nothing has changed:

The government dietary recommendations on how many calories the population should consume in a day to maintain a healthy weight have not changed. Women should still aim to consume 2,000 calories a day from food and drink, men should aim for 2,500.

However, they did confirm the new 400-600-600 rule...

There will be a simple rule of thumb to help them do this: 400:600:600 – people should aim for 400 calories from breakfast and 600 each from lunch and dinner.

So if a man should consume 2,500 calories, but only get 1,600 of these from main meals, where should the rest come from?

All other snacks and drink consumed between meals should make up the difference.

This is surprising advice to come from Public Health England, as I said in a letter to The Times* on Saturday:

Dear Sir,

Duncan Selbie assures us that Public Health England’s advice that we consume no more than 1,600 calories from breakfast, lunch and dinner does not imply a change to the existing guidelines (Letters, 29 December). As those guidelines advise adult males to consume 2,500 calories a day, I can only assume that he wants me to consume 900 calories in snacks, alcohol and sugary drinks to prevent malnourishment.

Public Health England have gained a reputation for being hectoring busybodies in recent years but this new fun-loving approach is to be applauded.

Yours faithfully,

Christopher Snowdon

The letter was somewhat tongue-in-cheek but it is an accurate reflection of what PHE are saying. Despite their anti-sugar and anti-alcohol stance, they really do seem to want men to consume 900 calories in snacks, alcohol and soft drinks (with women consuming 400 calories of the same. Why do women need to eat the same sized meals as men, but eat half as many snacks? Only PHE knows).

On the face of it, this is odd advice, but as I wrote in a previous post, I suspect that they are teeing up some political activity:

The 400-600-600 'rule' will allow PHE and its army of scolds to name and shame every restaurant portion, takeaway and ready meal that contains more than the government-approved quantity of calories. Individual meals will be portrayed as hazardous per se and will become targets for advertising bans, taxes and reformulation.

Today, Public Health England issued some more eating advice, this time for children's snacks...

Each year children are consuming almost 400 biscuits; more than 120 cakes, buns and pastries; around 100 portions of sweets; nearly 70 of both chocolate bars and ice creams; washed down with over 150 juice drink pouches and cans of fizzy drink.

So that's just over one biscuit a day, one cake, bun or pastry every three days, two portions of sweets a week, a little more than one chocolate bar or ice cream a week and a soft drink three times a week. Am I alone in thinking that this is not a great deal?

PHE have devised a new rule, which is to not buy any snack containing more than 100 calories for people under the age of 18. So that's most chocolate bars, ice creams, cakes, buns, crisps, nuts and large apples out of the window.

Its chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone said: “We’ve developed a simple rule of thumb to help families move towards healthier snacking… look for 100 calories snacks, two a day max.”

If PHE want to recommend that parents gives their kids healthier snacks, that's fair enough. If they want to advise parents not to give their kids more than a certain number of calories in snacks, there is an argument for issuing such advice.

But they are not doing this. Instead, they are putting an arbitrary limit on the number of calories that should be in each snack. It is an entirely unrealistic limit and has been greeted with derision. And so PHE have already started to backtrack on it somewhat...

PHE’s Orla Hugueniot insisted there was no ban on giving kids snacks but urged parents to use the traffic lights guide on food ­packaging that ­indicates the levels of unhealthy ­products such as sugar, salt and fat.

She added: “It’s a really simple way of bringing down the amount of sugar in children’s diets. We are not saying they can never give children a chocolate or biscuit ever again. But it cannot be a daily occurrence."

Leaving aside the fact that there is nothing wrong with having a biscuit every day and it is none of the government's damn business in the first place, we are once again being given guidelines that have no basis in evidence and that no normal person would want to follow.

The PHE website explicitly says that their new rule is ‘100 calorie snacks, two a day max’, but when pushed on this they say only that giving people under the age of 18 a normal snack should not be 'a daily occurrence'.

It is difficult to believe that the people at PHE, puritanical zealots though they may be, believe in this 'rule of thumb'. It is more likely that they wanted to start the new year with a healthy eating message, but realised that a sensible message of moderation would not be front page news and so invented a ridiculous rule to get attention.

If it was headlines they were after, they certainly got them:

Hooked on publicity, Public Health England have become attention-seeking trolls. This is a good thing. The 'public health' racket does not deserve to be taken seriously, and PHE's behaviour over the festive period should ensure that many people never take them seriously again.

For what it's worth, my own advice is to buy snacks for your children but then eat them yourself. If they complain, blame for government for setting you a quota of 900 snacking calories a day.

* For reasons best known to themselves, the Times' subs changed the 1,600 figure to 1,800 when the letter was published, thereby making it look like I can't count. 

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