Scotland's obesity crisis won't be solved by forcing restaurants to display calories on menus. Here's what to do instead – Stephen Jardine

Let’s all agree on something. Scotland has an obesity crisis and we need to do something about that.

Tackling junk food and promoting better eating habits at home is the way to deal with obesity (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Tackling junk food and promoting better eating habits at home is the way to deal with obesity (Picture: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Scotland has one of the worst weight problems in Europe with two-thirds of our population either overweight or obese. We are eating ourselves into an early grave and putting the NHS under as much strain as a fat businessman’s braces. So what’s the solution?

Earlier this month the UK Government introduced calorie counts on menus in chain restaurants with 250 employees or more. Here the Scottish Government is considering going a step further and make it mandatory for restaurants, pubs, cafes and takeaways to disclose the calorie content of all dishes on their menu.

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This week chef Nick Nairn roasted the idea calling it “totally impracticable”. As Nick pointed out, when a supplier arrives with something seasonal in the morning, how is any kitchen supposed to be able to contact a nutritionist, assess the calorie content and still manage to cook it and get it on a plate for the lunchtime rush?

The calorie count plan not only fundamentally fails to understand how restaurants work, it also misses the crucial point of how people eat. We are living in a cost-of-living crisis with the highest inflation in 30 years. Very few people are eating out frequently and regularly.

For most people, eating out is an indulgence or a special occasion. On that basis, they are highly unlikely to pay any attention to the small-print calorie information on the menu. Nor should they. If a little bit of what you fancy does you good, the odd pizza, steak or chicken tikka masala is not going to make or break your personal battle with the bulge.

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In reality, most calories are consumed in the home and that is where the focus needs to be if we are going to address the obesity crisis. The proof of the roly-poly pudding is the fact that, according to Public Health Scotland, a third of children starting school in Scotland are overweight or obese.

Unless they are sneaking out at night to eat in our cafes and restaurants, then home is the real source of the problem. Targeting eating out is simply an easy and visible means of pretending to do something about it.

The real solutions are much harder. We need much better food education in schools and a return to teaching children how to cook and eat well. We need bans on all junk food advertising and changes to planning to stop operators opening near schools and targeting children.

We need an end to multibuy promotions in supermarkets. We need a hard-hitting TV, billboard and social media advertising campaign clearly presenting the downside and the dangers of obesity and we need to tax the most unhealthy foods to make them change their formulation and stop damaging our health.

All these things are difficult and will face huge opposition from the vested interests of the global food conglomerates but no one said it was going to be easy. A similar approach has driven the tobacco industry into the ground and now it’s the turn of the junk food giants.

Perhaps there will be a day when what we eat in restaurants matters but that is a long, long way from where we are today.

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