Why three biscuits may be all it takes to curb Britain’s obesity crisis

Cutting 216 calories would be enough to halve obesity levels in England
Cutting 216 calories would be enough to halve obesity levels in England

A couple of gin and tonics; the crispy bacon in a sandwich; biscuits in the office to stave off an energy slump. These all equate to roughly 216 calories – the number Britons need to cut per day in order to curb the obesity crisis, according to new analysis from Nesta, a charity described as an “innovation agency for social good”.

The analysis suggests that those who are overweight or obese could reverse weight gain through even a modest reduction in calorie intake over a sustained period. It claims that cutting 216 calories (averaged from 241 calories for men and 190 for women) – roughly the equivalent of three biscuits, a “grab bag” of crisps, a large glass of white wine or three rashers of fried bacon – would be enough to halve obesity levels in England.

Rates of obesity in the UK have doubled over the past 30 years and are still increasing. Two-thirds of Britons are now overweight or obese, an issue that costs the NHS in excess of £6 billion per year. Could this refreshingly simple and quantifiable solution really work?

On an individual level, research proves that small, incremental changes are more likely to be successful than dramatic interventions.

The focus should definitely be on “making changes you can sustain long term,” says Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the ZOE app and author of Food for Life and Spoon Fed. He points out that dramatic changes to your diet can come with “a huge appetite increase and shut down [your] metabolism”. Examples of sustainable changes could be “reducing your eating window, cutting out the habit of certain snacks and having bigger meals less often”.

However, Spector says strategies like the 216 calorie figure are “a distraction” from a wider problem.

For a modest reduction in calories to be effective, it would need to be “combined with an improvement in food quality”, says Spector. “We know that if we give people the same amount of calories in ultra-processed food, they overeat by around 300 calories, totally negating the benefit of a reduction. Every year we’re eating more ultra-processed food and every year we’re getting fatter.”

Spector does agree that skipping a snack per day would be no bad thing. “I think it’s somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of UK calories that are eaten as snacks.” A 2018 study from Louisiana State University found snacking is responsible for as much as 11 per cent of eating behaviour and weight gain. Previous analysis from Nesta found that eating 240 more calories per day over the course of a year (equivalent to a large “grab bag” of crisps)⁠ would lead to weight gain of a stone (6.35kg). It also found that most Britons drastically underestimate the number of calories in popular snack foods. Even “healthy” snack bars marketed as plant-based and gluten-free have been found to contain 200-plus calories.

It’s also easy to underestimate the calories in drinks: a 500ml bottle of Coca-Cola contains 210 calories, and a large latte from a popular high-street chain contains 209 calories. Then there’s alcohol: cutting just a single drink per day would be enough to reduce your intake by the recommended 216 calories (See below for more details).

But, disappointingly, cutting out that latte or handful of peanuts is unlikely to be a successful route to sustainable weight loss. “You can work it out theoretically and say, ‘If I eat half a banana less each day then I’ll lose 10 kilos,’ but it doesn’t work that way. It’s all about what else you eat instead and how hungry that makes you.”

Spector advises focusing on what you can add rather than just counting the calories you can take away: for example, aiming for 30 types of plant each week (that includes herbs, spices, seeds and nuts) to support gut health; adding fermented foods to your diet; swapping milk chocolate for 70 per cent dark chocolate, and so on.

“Just changing your diet to a good-quality diet that benefits your gut microbes would probably have the same impact on your body as reducing 200 calories if you were only eating ultra-processed foods,” he says.

Dr Linia Patel, a consultant dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, agrees. “The focus on calories needs to be pivoted; whilst calories do count, I think there’s got to be much more focus on what the calorie is made out of,” she says.

Filling up on “wholegrain carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and fruit and lean protein” will make you less likely to crave processed (and calorific) snacks and will likely result in a reduced calorie intake as you’ll stay fuller for longer.

On a national scale, Spector says change will only come when we wise up to the correlation between obesity and ultra-processed food. The analysis from Nesta acknowledges that, for the calorie-cutting approach to work on a population level, supermarkets and manufacturers would need to reformulate food and reduce junk food advertising.

So, a small calorie reduction probably isn’t a silver bullet. But Patel concedes that a basic awareness of calorie intake is a good place to start. “Perhaps if looking at calories does help someone become a little more observant of the quality of food they’re eating then, fine, that might work.”

Five ways to cut 216 calories

Lager - Cavan Images
Lager - Cavan Images

1. Resist the glass of wine

In some cases, cutting just a single drink per day would be enough to reduce your intake by the recommended 216 calories or thereabouts. A large glass of dry white wine (250ml) contains 188kcal; a pint of lager contains 187kcal, and a pint of Guinness 199kcal.

2. Be smart with oil, dressings and sauces

Sauces can be surprisingly calorific: for instance, mayonnaise contains 96 calories per tablespoon. Olive oil contains lots of healthy fats but also packs in 123 calories per tablespoon. Where possible, make your own salad dressing and reduce the ratio of olive oil to other ingredients, like lemon juice or vinegar. As per Spector’s advice, flavour food with herbs and spices (instead of shop-bought sauces) to contribute to your target of 30 plants per week.

3. Swap or skip a snack

As Spector says, more than 20 per cent of UK calories are consumed as snacks. Popular snacks also tend to be highly processed. Cutting out a “grab bag” of crisps or handful of salted peanuts would be enough to reduce your daily intake by over 200 calories. Beware “healthy” snack bars marketed as plant-based and gluten-free as they also likely contain 200-plus calories. If you can’t go without, swap out processed grab-and-go snacks for more nutrient dense alternatives: for instance, crisps could be swapped for a whole grain cracker with cream cheese.

4. Be careful of soft drinks

A 500ml bottle of Coca-Cola contains 210kcal, which may seem obvious, but more surprising is the fact that a large latte from a popular high-street chain contains 209kcal. Swap fizzy drinks for gut-friendly sparkling kombucha and keep milky coffees to a minimum.

5. Practise portion control

Being mindful of suggested portion sizes is an easy way to reduce your overall intake. Research shows that, more often than not, we underestimate the number of calories a food contains. If in doubt, use the rule of thumb – or hand – when it comes to carbohydrates: two palmfuls of rice or pasta, a fist-sized baked potato, and so on. A full guide to portion sizes is available on the British Nutrition Foundation’s website. Smart swaps like switching white bread for wholegrain pitta can help, too.