An advisory committee has concluded that the recommended daily calorie limits to maintain a healthy weight, laid down 20 years ago, have been slightly on the low side.In 1991 the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) set out that the average man should be eating 2,550 calories daily, and the average woman 1,940.
After lengthy consultation, those have now been raised slightly – by a frugal 55 calories for men, but a comparatively generous 139 calories for women.
Which means 2,605 calories a day for men and 2,079 calories a day for women.
Prof Alan Jackman, chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), explained that the old figures were based on “limited available evidence”.
They have been updated to take into account advances in science and better understanding of the physical activity people took.
Sadly, that is where the good news ends.
Speaking at a briefing to launch the Government’s new “ambition” to see obesity levels falling by 2020, Prof Jackman; Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary; and Prof Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, emphasised that this was “not a licence to eat more”.
Prof Jackman said “the majority of adults” already ate much more than the new guideline amounts.
“We estimate that on average the population is eating 10 per cent more than they require,” he said.
Thus, as little over a third of the adult population is now not overweight or obese, only that minority is really entitled to an extra guilt-free indulgence.
Mr Lansley decided to unveil the Government’s new anti-obesity ambition the same day, leading to accusations of mixed messages.
The Health Secretary said Britain had to become a nation of calorie counters.
“People should have a pretty good sense of how many calories they are consuming,” he said.
Department of Health policy officers have calculated that England needs to consume five billion fewer calories daily, to ensure average weights fall to healthy levels.
That equates to enough cheeseburgers to cover 20 football pitches, or enough cafe lattes to fill four Olympic swimming pools, said a spokesman.
But Prof Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said it amounted to “peanuts”.
He added: “Sixteen dry roasted peanuts per person, per day to be precise.”
Like others, he attacked the Health Secretary’s reluctance to use stronger measures to tackle obesity, which already costs the NHS one pound in every 20 it spends.
The Prime Minister last week said a ‘fat tax’ on some foods was “something we should look at”, but yesterday Mr Lansley would only say that while taxes might have “a part to play”, they were not a “first resort”.
But Jamie Oliver, the chef and healthy eatign campaigner, dismissed the whole strategy as a “farce” and a “cop-out”, saying it was “worthless, regurgitated, patronising rubbish”.
He said: “Simply telling people what they already know – that they need to eat less and move more – is a complete cop out. The country’s bill of health is shocking, and it’s not going to get any better over the next 30 years if a clearly defined plan isn’t put into place soon.”
“We simply can’t afford the financial or health costs of doing nothing. This Government might be able to navigate us slowly out of a recession, but it has no clue about how to make sustainable change in the short or long term, or how to inspire, enforce or empower public health.”
Dr David Haslam, a GP and chair of the National Obesity Forum, said issuing the new calorie guidelines alongside the updated anti-obesity drive was “really unhelpful”.
“It gives out entirely the wrong message,” he said. “People are going to think that they can eat that little bit more. If anything, that will add to the obesity problem.”