The diet you can count on? - ‘It would be quite easy to develop a bit of a calorie complex’
A UK public health body has launched the 400-600-600 plan to help curb obesity rates. But can families stick to it? Alex Meehan puts it to the test
Ask any dietician about the concept of calorie counting and you'll likely be met with an exasperated look. While counting calories was the mainstay of diets in the 1970s and 80s, today most experts consider such a prescriptive approach to be unhelpful.
So the news that a public health body in Britain has recommended that the best way to combat the obesity epidemic is to go on a diet wholly based on calorie counting is surprising. The idea put forth by Public Health England is that for optimum health, our next-door neighbours should be eating no more than 400 calories for breakfast, 600 for lunch and 600 for dinner, or 1,600 calories a day in total.
Today, anyone with more than a passing familiarity with nutrition knows that the problem with counting calories is that, as a measurement of health, they're blunt instruments.
Yes, eating less calories will result in weight loss. But there's more to being healthy than just a number and for most people, there's also more to food than just fuel.
"The concept is good, in that if you eat too many calories it will lead to weight gain. But I think educating people about portion sizes would be a much more beneficial thing to do," said Aveen Bannon, consultant dietician with the Dublin Nutrition Centre. "People don't necessarily have the knowledge to be able to do a diet like this.
"If you stop someone in the street and ask them how many calories are in a bowl of porridge or a potato, they won't know. So there are simpler ways of doing this, like teaching people about the colour system - make sure a third of your plate is colour in the form of vegetables, a third is carbs and a third is protein."
When I tell Bannon that I'm going to test the diet out for the purposes of this article, she wishes me good luck, and tells me that I'll need it.
I'm in the middle of a course of sessions with a personal trainer, so as luck would have it, I happen to know that on a daily basis I burn around 2,120 calories simply by existing. Doing exercise like going for a brisk walk or taking a gym class can increase that to 2,500 fairly easily, so dropping to 1,600 calories is going to be a challenge.
"For breakfast, 400 calories is a reasonable amount for you, but you need to make sure you're getting your calories from slow burning carbohydrates such as porridge, maybe with some nuts and seeds thrown in, along with some fresh fruit. Otherwise you're going to be hungry long before lunchtime," Bannon tells me.
"Dinner will be relatively easy. A normal dinner comes in at around 600 calories anyway, but lunch is going to be a challenge - you're going to have to have a sandwich and maybe a yoghurt with it, and some fruit.
"A ham salad sandwich would be around 350 calories, for example, so you'd need to find another 250 calories, and for some people that might mean adding in coleslaw or something similar."
I start day one as I normally do, with a whole wheat, high fibre bagel (216 calories) topped with a tablespoon of peanut butter (116 calories) - the healthy kind, with no palm oil or added sugar. For lunch, I make a large pot of lentil and vegetable soup, as I reckon eating as many veggies as possible is likely to considerably increase my chances of success. With a bowl only coming in at around 150 calories, I have two, plus a slice of toast and an apple.
Dinner is a poached chicken breast (around 150 calories) with loads of stir fried veggies. It's all a bit joyless, but so far this diet doesn't seem all that hard.
Day two is a different matter. I have my usual breakfast, then a three-egg omelette for lunch. But even with the eggs and the oil I need to cook the omelette, I only take in 480 calories. It's not nearly enough... as I find out a couple of hours later when I'm in the supermarket shopping for ingredients for dinner and am suddenly seriously hangry.
I manage to get out without wolfing down a cookie from the in-store bakery, but it's a close-run thing.
For dinner it's spaghetti Bolognese, made with lean beef mince, vegetables and tinned tomatoes.
I'm cooking for the family, so I make a large pot and work out that while it contains 2,000 calories, it also has enough for 10 servings.
So far so good, but then I realise I'll have to dispense with my usual Parmesan cheese on top. Even worse, my idea of what constitutes a 'serving' of pasta appears to be way off kilter. The pack recommends 75g of uncooked pasta per person, which equates to 300 calories, but when I weigh it out, I realise I've been eating double portions as a matter of course.
As for a glass of red wine to go with it, forget it. It turns out that there are 83 calories in a 100ml glass of wine (that's also considered to be one unit of alcohol). I pour out what I consider to be a normal-sized glass of wine - and as a very modest drinker, I don't tend to go over the top - and am shocked when I realise it's closer to 300ml than 100ml. Back in the bottle it goes. The week continues in much the same vein - breakfast and lunch tend to be easy (I learn the lesson of earlier in the week and make sure to take in all 600 calories at lunchtime), but dinner is trickier as there really is only so much poached chicken, grilled fish, pulses and roasted vegetables that you can eat.
It all becomes a little dull, and I realise it would be quite easy to develop a bit of a calorie complex and become so focused on the numbers that you lose sight of the health-giving, and fun, properties of food. I could, in theory, have eaten 6.15 Mars bars a day (see, I told you I was obsessing over numbers) and still come in at the recommended amount of calories, even if my health would have taken a serious battering as a result.
And that, I suspect, would have included my mental health - I really can't help but think that in the long term, such a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach could easily lead to a lot of anxiety around food and eating.
By the end of the week, I am completely in agreement with Aveen Bannon: portion control is the secret to healthy eating. The week has taught me that I've been dramatically under-estimating what I've been eating and have been loading my plate with unnecessarily large portions of carbohydrates, and not nearly enough vegetables.
While my diet is relatively healthy, it turns out I'm just eating too much. And even though I won't be sorry to see the back of my week of calorie counting, that's a lesson that I - and, I suspect, a lot of people - could do with learning.
What's in and what's out?
IN - porridge, brown toast, low sugar jam, lean grilled bacon, poached or boiled eggs, yoghurt and fruit.
OUT - the traditional fry-up, refined sugar jams, fried eggs and bacon, and refined sugary cereals.
IN - whole wheat sandwiches, lean cuts of meat, cheese, fruit, soup and salads with reduced mayonnaise.
OUT - traditional roast dinners, most desserts.
IN - vegetable curries, spaghetti Bolognese, roast vegetables.
OUT - fish and chips, anything deep fried, anything made with refined wheat or sugar.