Are we lying about the amount of calories we consume?

If you happened to catch the news yesterday you will have probably heard that Brits, despite supposedly reporting a fall in their calorie intake, are actually somehow getting bigger and bigger as time progresses. How can this be the case? Well the Behavioural Insights Team have concluded that when it comes to honesty, us Brits might have some way to go. 

The official conclusion, which you can find here, is that subsequent national surveys have under-estimated the amount of calories we consume. So much so that if the reported level of calorie consumption truly reflected what is actually happening, as a nation we would be losing weight even if we were only doing “the minimum possible level of physical activity”.

So we aren’t talking about a minor disparity here. Just think about this conclusion for a second. Even if we were doing next to no exercise, our reported level of calorie consumption would still result in a national deficit and we would be losing weight as a result.

The report also takes a look at our consumer habits and the conclusion there is that in terms of calories purchased, they’re going up too. So we are buying more calories, therefore we assume we are eating more and this just doesn’t reflect the results of numerous national surveys.

Saying that people lie might seem a bit strong and it isn’t always the case. A lot of people just don’t know how many calories are in the things that they are eating and drinking. This means that when people are surveyed and they try to add up what they eat, they often under-estimate the genuine figure. For example, would you know that a typical bowl of cereal contains around 172 calories? And would you know how long you have to exercise for to burn that off? What if I asked you which has more calories: a standard glass of wine or a pint of beer? You can see how people become confused and just start to guesstimate. And it seems we tend to guess low.

What are the other possible explanations then? Well you could argue that if calorie consumption has gone down, then we might just be exercising less and that could explain the apparent growth in obesity levels in the UK. But the report deals with that. Essentially the numbers you are talking about are just too big. The reduction in exercise would be unfathomably large and there is no evidence to suggest that is the case.

Despite calories being fairly well discussed when it comes to health and fitness, they are consistently misunderstood. The fact is that arbitrary numbers don’t mean an awful lot to many people. To be fully understood they need context. I like the idea of equating the amount of exercise that is required to the number of calories in what we eat, so maybe that is the best way to go. Exercise labels are becoming more popular but we will have to wait and see just how effective they are.

Ollie Lawrence
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