Jeremy Laurance: The obesity crisis: it all comes down to peanuts

Health Check:

Andrew Lansley wants you to go on a diet. Five billion calories must be sacrificed by the nation, the health secretary said last week, which he helpfully illustrated with images of Olympic-sized swimming pools of cola, and chocolate bars lined up from Lands End to John o' Groats. Graphic stuff. But if you think about those cola swimming pools or miles of chocolate, do you not feel depressed? Who can cut their calories on such an industrial scale?

But Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics, put it another way: a five billion calorie cut equates to 100 calories per day per person, which is the equivalent of just 16 dry roasted peanuts. Suddenly, the task looks do-able – all we have to do is give up a handful of peanuts. Mr Lansley boasted that the national calorie cut he was seeking was three times greater than a similar US programme launched a few years ago. Maybe he would have had a better reception for his announcement if he had stressed how modest it was.

Yet we know how difficult even modest changes are. Twenty years ago, Virginia Bottomley, Mr Lansley's predecessor as Health Secretary, urged the nation to eat "three egg-sized potatoes a day." Obesity has since soared. Last week's announcement contained the same message repackaged. Small wonder medical organisations reacted with anger and disbelief. The epidemic is raging but the Government still refuses to rein in the food and drink industries that lie behind it.

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