In the third of a four-part special series on the food we eat, the Tonight programme asks why so many of us find it so difficult to eat healthily. According to a specially commissioned survey of 2,000 people, most of us want to eat a healthy diet, but in the last 20 years obesity in adults in the UK has actually increased by more than 60%.
Tonight conducts a series of tests, some on reporter Jonathan Maitland, to discover whether we are actually hardwired to seek out food high in fat and sugar.
The Tonight team visits the Trafford Centre armed with two very different kinds of snacks to offer the shoppers. One plate presents an array of healthy fresh carrots and the other is piled high with chunks of chocolate. Out of 60 shoppers, two thirds opted for the less healthy indulgence.
Jonathan travels to Brighton for his own set of experiments. Neuro-psychologist Dr David Lewis specialises in measuring human responses to things we come across in everyday life and he measures Jonathan’s emotional and physical reaction when he looks at pictures of different types of food. Dr Lewis concludes that Jonathan’s heart rate quickens and he literally breaks out into a sweat when faced with dishes loaded with sugar and fat.
Dr David Lewis tells Jonathan: “When you were looking at the healthy food the fruit and the good stuff you were actually less emotionally aroused than you were when you looked at the unhealthy food. So you became more excited by all the ice cream and chocolates and things like that.”
Jonathan is typical – humans were hard-wired thousands of years ago to seek out high calorie foods, when such foods were scarce. The trouble now is that foods high in sugar and fat are available everywhere.
A multi-billion pound “healthy eating” industry has developed over the past decades as we search for healthier alternatives. But how much do “low fat” and “reduced sugar” products help us in the obesity fight?
Tonight recruits four Liverpool ladies who want to cut down on unhealthy foods to help us find out. For six days we challenge them to eat anything they want, so long as the label suggests it’s good for you.
Nutritionist Amanda Hamilton monitors what they choose to eat – and gives them her verdict, which is far from complimentary.
We find that one woman ate 21% more than her Guideline Daily Allowance of calories. Two women ate more saturated fat and carbohydrates than they should and three ate more salt. Those that ate under the GDA in calories, fat and carbs also ate less than their GDA of fibre.
Amanda Hamilton concludes that people should look carefully at healthy eating claims on food packages. She says: “It’s not that labels are all bad it’s just that in the case of this experiment you’ve all been very easily led. And what you’ve chosen as healthy, largely , absolutely – almost every single item I wouldn’t class as healthy in my book.”
Some food experts say that while encouraging us to eat more fruit and veg is obviously a good thing – we also need to make popular processed foods healthier.
The UK’s salt reduction strategy involving several big brands has already made some impressive inroads by cutting down levels of salt in snacks, crisps, ready meals, processed meals and bread. As a result, over the last seven years, salt consumption in the UK has dropped by 16%.
The challenge now for food manufacturers is to build on this success – and continue to reduce levels of sugar, salt and saturated fat in food – without affecting the taste.
Our presenter Jonathan meets up with Dr Wayne Morley who is right at the cutting edge of food innovation. He has developed a range of healthier processed food such as reduced fat in pastry and biscuits and reduced sugar in chocolate and drinks.
Tonight also visits a Kelloggs Special K factory to see how their new lower saturated fat and sugar recipe is getting along.
It’s important to remember that healthy eating habits must start at a young age. Tonight speaks to Dr Kirsten Rennie who says that often foods designed to appeal to children – sporting bright colours on the packaging – contain more sugar and fat than adult equivalent products.
Dr Rennie told Tonight: “We looked at cereal bars, yoghurts and ready meals in supermarkets and compared the children’s products with the non-children’s products and found that the children’s were much higher in fat and sugar than the adult products as a whole.”
She says this is a worry, because in the short term such foods can contribute to childhood obesity and in the long-term it gives a taste preference for high fat, high sugar products.
Celebrity Chef Simon Rimmer wants to improve kids’ eating habits. He takes Tonight along to Longfields Primary School in Bicester where they don’t provide school dinners to pupils. Simon and the pupils discuss their lunch boxes and Simon shows them that healthy food can also be very tasty – take a beetroot and chocolate muffin for example!