How much do we really eat?

The summer holidays are well and truly upon us; an opportunity to spend time with the family and take a break. According to recent trends, one in five of us will opt for an all-inclusive type of holiday. But, according to some commentators, all that included food and drink comes with the added risk of consuming, on average, an extra 1000 kcal per day and putting on a stone in weight. Ouch.

Of course many of us will realise that these calorific holiday excesses may be short lived and a far cry from the current daily recommendations for calorie intake. These suggest that men should be consuming around 2500 kcal a day, and women 2000 kcal per day, as part of a healthy diet that maintains weight. But (outside of these “indulgent” holidays) are we following that advice?

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey collects data on the dietary habits of a sample of the UK population, including adults and children. In one of the latest reports, using data collected between 2008 and 2012, the survey concluded that the mean reported total energy intake for an adult man was 2111 kcal per day and 1630 kcal per day for a woman.

So if we assume that the sample population used in the survey is representative of the general population, it would suggest that not only are we adhering to the current recommendations for daily calorie intake, we are probably eating less than recommended. 

And yet surveys gathering data on the prevalence of overweight and obesity consistently show a rise among adults over the last 20 years and, although now plateauing, predicted to continue to affect significant proportions of the UK population. This trend is of such concern that the Chief Medical Officer recently described obesity as a threat to the UK sufficient to need national risk planning along with other national threats such as terrorism.

So why does obesity remain a problem when we are seemingly consuming fewer calories than recommended? Some have claimed that the reason for this is that official dietary advice is wrong. And instead of being mindful of our calories through a “balanced diet”, incorporating low fat, low sugar, and higher fruit and vegetable intakes, we should stop counting calories, dissociate physical inactivity to weight gain and instead consume more saturated fats in our diets. But this argument has also been questioned.

But perhaps we are simply not doing enough exercise, and that’s main problem? After all, surveys from the British Heart Foundation show that as a nation in general, we are still not meeting recommended levels of daily physical activity. But again, although physical activity has many health benefits, including weight management, we would have to do a fair bit of exercise to solely  offset our calorie intake. When it comes down to diet and exercise, although both are important, there is little doubt that diet is the key to losing weight.

And yet there remains this disparity between our supposed average kcal intake and the growth in our waistlines. Perhaps then there are question marks over the reliability of the data? To put this issue into a bit more context, nutritional epidemiology is well recognised for its strengths and weakness; the latter including the accuracy of dietary intake surveys, which have been limited by underreporting.

With that thought in mind, the results from a recent Behavioural Insights Team report may not come as much of a surprise. The report finds that current survey results for UK calorie intake are implausibly low, even to maintain our weight, and in the context of relatively little physical activity. And that in fact many may be routinely consuming nearer 3000 kcal/day. The report goes on to suggest that underreporting of calorie intake increases with a persons weight. Suggested reasons for this may include obese individuals feeling more embarrassed at reporting accurately what they consume or less able to report it accurately, possibly because they are eating more and simply don’t realise what they are eating. The team also suggest that snacking and calories consumed from eating out are also underreported.

All this said, the report does highlight several limitations with its own findings, such as basing calculations on population average data only and the reliability of the equations used to generate their data. Even so, we know that, when asked, people often understate their cigarette use and alcohol intake. It isn’t very surprising then that they may also understate their food intake.

Nevertheless, as pointed out in a reaction to the report, the analysis should provide a greater impetus to tackle the complex factors that contribute to obesity. Which still, according to this new report, revolves around us eating too much.

And with that thought…enjoy your summer holiday.


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