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If you’re trying to eat your way to your best life you’d be forgiven for being confused by the mixed messages. Are calories king? Or is food quality key? Both are topical questions as Public Health England takes action to influence your daily diet.

The ‘One You’ 400-600-600 Campaign

Today, PHE deployed new tactics to reduce overall calorie consumption by targeting adults who consume 200 to 300 too many calories a day.

The strategy

To reduce the calorie count of foods that you regularly eat on the go, or warm up at home – think biscuits, luxury breads, crisps, ready meals, gourmet sandwiches and dressings.

Furthermore, calorie targets for breakfast, lunch and dinner have been set (400, 600, 600 respectively) and food category guidelines will be published mid-2019.

“It’s clear that excess calories are driving weight gain for many,” Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said of the initiative. “Busy lives and too much food mean we’re often eating more food than we realise – especially when we’re grabbing food out and about. This can have a significant impact on our waistlines and our health.

“The 400-600-600 tip can help people make healthier choices when eating and drinking on the go.”

What this means for you

First off, you could notice new labels on packaging to signal that your meal meets the 400-600-600 guidelines. And your favoured foods could get smaller or perhaps, change in flavour as recipes are re-worked to lower total calories. So far so good – or is it?

“I commend the PHE for encouraging people to eat healthier by being more informed, however, I feel there is the risk of using calories as an indicator of how healthy a food is,” says Dr Hazel Wallace and founder of The Food Medic. “An analogy by Nichola Ludlam-Raine explains this well. A wholemeal sandwich made with chicken, avocado and salad is likely to be higher in calories than one made with white bread and filled with a slice of ham. Both sandwiches can have a place in the diet, but it is likely the wholemeal one, which would be higher in fibre, nutrients, protein, and healthy fats, will leave you feeling more satisfied.”

Furthermore, Wallace adds that generalised calorie guidelines need to be taken with a pinch of salt: “It is recommended [in this campaign] that women consume 2000kcal a day, but the amount is truly individual and depends on activity level. You’ll require more calories when training for a marathon than say, in a sedentary job.”

A very valid point. In Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss author and registered dietitian Georgie Fear explains that your body burns calories even when you’re doing nothing – this is called your basal metabolic rate. However, the number of calories it eats through is dependent on a number of factors (think: sex, age, and height) but the main determinant of BMR is lean body mass. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect to go through the same calories as your Crossfit-regular friend who’s one foot taller and 10kg heavier – thus, making the 400-600-600 calorie rule redundant unless you fit the profile of the woman these guidelines were based on, which, by the way, hasn’t been shared.

So how can you take the stress out of eating on the go?

For starters, focus on portion sizes. Wallace suggests measuring out your food and getting to grips with recipes that you can package up and take with you. In doing so, you become more aware of the ingredient makeup of your meals.

Read on for easy ways to eat healthy when you’re super busy or tired

Next, take a moment to scan food packaging. “There is a danger that this awareness campaign could simply be used as a marketing tool by food retailers and the ‘out of home’ sector to sell more products,” warns Graham MacGregor, Professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar.

Today’s nutritional takeaway?

Make mindful choices when it comes to choosing your pre-packaged food and do look at the nutritional information. The caloric value of your food is only part of the story, look at the ingredients list for the next chapter.

Next, spend a moment to understand why it’s not just how many calories you eat but what you eat that matters, plus how to make a microwave meal in a mug when you’re so busy you can’t even.

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