Jane Bradley: Eating lunch like in Sex and the City is making us obese

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Eating out on a regular basis – rather than an occasional treat – in one of the reasons why so many of us are overweight or obese, writes Jane Bradley.

Last weekend, I had a rare treat: a totally free two days in London staying with an old friend. Although we saw a bit of art and indulged in a smidgen of theatrical culture, what we actually spent most of our time doing was wandering round on foot, chatting and eating our way through everything that the English capital had to offer.

We indulged in a deliciously flaky Serbian burek (strangely far tastier than the version I had in actual Serbia a few years ago) at a street food market, ate plates of dim sum and spicy noodles and munched our way through various forms of sharing platters – from mini Indian-inspired dishes to tiny Italia-themed bites. We drank umpteen coffees, a few glasses of wine and gobbled Portugese tarts like they were going out of fashion. Do I have any idea how many calories I consumed that weekend? I haven’t a clue. To be fair, as well as all the gastronomic indulgence, we also hiked more than 26,000 steps a day, according to the step counter on my phone, so we probably deserved it.

If the UK Government gets its way, I will be far more aware of the enormous amount of food I consume next time I go to visit my friend in London, as English restaurants look set to have to list calorie counts on their menus under moves mooted by the Department of Health. This doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

The idea, of course, is to make people more aware of what they are eating, in a bid to combat the growing (pardon the pun) obesity crisis. While the move would be devolved and therefore would not affect Scotland imminently, we cannot ignore the fact that our obesity crisis is no better – and is arguably actually worse – than that of our friends south of the border. If it works in England, the powers that be up here could also consider it at some point in the future.

Yet, researchers in other countries where calorie counts have already been mandatory have actually found that the ruling makes little difference. In the US, all chain restaurants with more than 20 outlets have been required to list calories since May this year, following legislation mooted four years earlier. Vending machines, cinema popcorn and even bars also have to post calorie counts – including those contained in alcoholic drinks.

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However, the practice has been followed in New York City for a few years now. A study carried out in 2015 by New York University researchers used receipts and surveys at fast-food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Wendy’s to track customer purchases. In NYC, where menus were labelled, the amount of calories consumed averaged between 804 and 839 per meal. In neighbouring New Jersey, however, where restaurants did not have to label calories, meals typically ran at 802 to 857 calories. Not a huge difference.

Where the problem lies is that eating out has become a way of life, rather than an occasional treat. We all remember the Sex and the City episode where Carrie Bradshaw revealed that she used her oven as extra shelves for sweater storage: she literally never cooked. At the time – less than 20 years ago lest we forget – the idea seemed laughable and something that only a crazy, fictional New Yorker could do, an idea as seemingly fictional as the enormous disposable income she generated from a single newspaper column.

Yet, now for many, it is not so ridiculous. Research published last year by polling firm Mintel found that the number of consumers buying lunch to eat out of the home for an everyday occasion rocketed last year to 76 per cent, up from 64 per cent in 2016.

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Yet, if you don’t eat out and you cook from scratch most of the time, it turns out it is actually fairly tricky to overeat. I picked a day when I knew I would be preparing all of my meals at home and searched the internet to find out how bad my diet actually was. That night, I made a Jamie Oliver Sri Lankan fish curry for my family’s dinner, which the recipe told me was under 400 calories a portion – including the coconut rice.

As that was my main meal (and very filling it was too), I would have to work fairly hard to make up my daily total to the recommended allowance for an adult woman of 2,000 kcal a day. I helped myself along by grabbing a bag of crisps from the vending machine at work (205 kcal) and had a filling packed lunch (around 280 kcal for the tuna sandwich, another 200 for two pieces of fruit and 111 for a yoghurt), yet I still only made it to less than 1,200 kcal for the day, including my breakfast of cereal and milk.

Obviously, I’m not eating fish and vegetable curry every day. Sometimes, even on a cooking-at-home day, we might have macaroni cheese – my daughter’s favourite – which online calculators tell me is likely to be more like 500 kcal for a typical portion. Yet this still only pushes me up to 1,300 or so. If I have an extra helping, maybe add another 200kcal. According to these estimates, I still have plenty of room to indulge in a fair bit of between-meal eating and still not eat to excess.

Yet, when you eat out, the calorie count suddenly begins to shoot up. I dread to think what my count was at the weekend.

Restaurants want to make things taste delicious, it is how they get people to return. A French restaurant is likely to cook things in large amounts of butter – and drizzle more over the top for good measure. Your Indian takeaway is likely to contain quite a lot of oil. A single Calabrese pizza at Pizza Express contains a whopping 1,346kcal. But oh, doesn’t it taste good?

A recent study carried out by Obesity Action Scotland found that one chippy in Glasgow is selling portions of chips which contain over 1,500kcal – close to a whole day’s allowance.

However, what we need to do is not stick calorie counts on restaurant meals which make us feel guilty when we’re enjoying an occasional takeaway treat, or socialising while enjoying a meal at a restaurant with friends and family.

We just need to try to eat more healthily the rest of the time – and stop seeing eating out as a daily staple. Our wallets, as well as out waistlines, would be far happier.