Genius idea or disaster? Restaurants targeted to cut calories by 20%

Emma Brown | 12 Apr, 2019

Nutritionist Emma Brown looks at government plans to drastically cut restaurant calories.

The UK is suffering a huge obesity crisis, and the fallout costs the struggling NHS over £6 billion year. This much we have known for many years. We also know that more and more of us are now regularly eating outside of the home, meaning eating out establishments have a big role to play in what – and how much – we're all eating.

With this in mind, the government has requested that UK eateries – which include restaurants, pubs, cafes, coffee shops, takeaways and delivery services – must slash the calories in the food they sell by 20%. Once the consultation on this closes, targeted businesses will have until 2024 to make this happen.

This sounds like a big ask, but is it?

Why are the calories so high?

According to government research, about a quarter of calories now come from food and drink consumed outside of the home. Restaurant meals and foods eaten on the go are often much higher in calories when compared to their 'homemade' counterparts, so this reduction seems to me to be absolutely essential!

But why is a lot of the food we eat outside of the home so high in calories in the first place? In my view, there are two big factors – the focus on taste and portion size.

When it comes to taste, there are slightly different angles – depending whether we're talking fast food or fine dining.

In a bid to deliver the most drool inducing meals that will keep you coming back time and time again, many fast food establishments call on the 3 staple flavour inducing nutrients: fat, sugar and salt. Food is often supplied part made to be microwaved/finished off (''ping food''), rather than it being made from scratch on the premises. It's generally a fixed menu that is calorie dense, nutrient poor and created for maximum profit.

At the other end of the eating experience, fine dining, restaurants use the highest quality fresh produce to deliver the very best taste, with no compromise on indulgent ingredients. However it's fair to say that smaller portions may offset the impact of such indulgence, and this sort of dining out is probably more for a special occasion.

But for many mid market eating out places – of the type many of us probably frequent more regularly – it's all about great taste and decent portion sizes. The cooking method and generous use of oil can add hundreds of avoidable calories. Switching from deep frying to baking or grilling food; using low-fat yoghurt and reduced fat crème fraîche instead of cream; or cutting back on extra sugar – are all achievable changes that can and should be made.

Making matters worse!

Portion size is probably the biggest factor. We seriously need to change our mindsets – there is an ingrained belief that large portion = great value.

This sense of 'getting value for money' at all-you-can-eat buffets, and help yourself carveries drives us to pile our plates high. We've all done it, taking what we've paid for, rather than what we need to feel full. It would be so much better to encourage diners to 'sample small' at first rather than go all-out before they've assessed that they really want to try.

No-one wants to leave a restaurant feeling hungry, so many popular chains serve carb-heavy meals – think garlic bread and pasta, or fries and baguettes, relatively inexpensive but great plate fillers. And it's well documented that we humans struggle to say 'no' to what's out in front of us, meaning we naturally consume far more than is necessary.

What can restauramts do?

A simple and effective way to bulk out meals to add volume but not calories is to pack in more vegetables. It's perfectly possible to adapt popular recipe classics to reduce the energy density with some easy swaps or veg additions. The massive trend towards veganism is reflected in more choice of vegan dishes in many restaurants and eating out places. More plant-based meals is a great way to provide healthier food.

We also need to make veg more exciting because it can often look like an afterthought – restaurant meals tend to focus around the meat and carb choices with a token gesture of greenery or salad. At home we might fill half our plate with veg but at a restaurant you'd be lucky to get a quarter. And less of the low cal, good for us veggies on the plate means more space for high cal, not so good for us meat and carbs.

For restaurants to meet the 20% reduction target, there needs to be a focus on reviewing ingredients and cooking methods used, as well as portion size.

Reducing how much they're serving up doesn't compromise on taste, and should actually save them money. A start would be to offer the choice of a large and small portions of a dish – after all a 5ft 2" female probably won't have the same appetite as a 6ft 4" male. (Think how much wasted food could be avoided?)

On top of this, restaurants need to get more imaginative with their dishes. Make better use of vegetables to fill the plate and add vibrancy, while cutting calories. And consider other ways to make their dishes more filling, by using a good protein and fibre mix. More interesting grains than 'white rice' should be introduced such as quinoa, buckwheat and giant wholemeal cous cous, for added fibre and interest too!

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.