Time for a takeaway clampdown?
Can’t move for chippies, curry houses and burger bars?
You’re nearly twice as likely to be obese if you live or work near a high number of takeaways, according to a new study. So is it time for local authorities to step in and remove the temptation? Or do we all just need a little more willpower?
It may well be the least shocking health story of the year so far. People who have the greatest access to takeaways near their homes or workplaces are almost twice as likely to suffer from obesity – and its associated health risks – as those who have the least exposure. That’s according to a new Cambridge University study, which tracked more than 5,000 adults born between 1950 and 1975.
And if you can’t move for chippies, curry houses and burger bars on your local high street, you’re not alone. The average person encounters 32 takeaway outlets around their home, workplace and daily commute, researchers found. Put simply then, most of us are faced with this kind of high-calorie, low-nutrition temptation all the time. Is it any wonder there’s an obesity epidemic?
What needs to be done?
“We already know people are spending more than ever on takeaways and food eaten away from home, and that these foods are often less healthy than meals we make ourselves,” says Tracy Parker, heart health dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, the charity that part-funded the research. ‘”This is a worrying trend, given that a quarter of adults in the UK are already obese, putting them at greater risk of heart disease.”
So, what’s the solution? One school of thought is that local authorities should step in to restrict access to takeaway food. This might involve placing a limit on the number of fast-food outlets that can open in a given area – as some councils have done already – or simply restricting opening hours to avoid 24/7 availability. Take away the temptation, and we’ll be more likely to go home and rustle up a salad – or so the argument goes.
Alternatively, the introduction of more stringent food labelling and healthy menu options would allow us to make better-informed decisions about what we’re putting into our bodies. This idea gets Tracy’s backing: “It’s vital we have the tools to make healthy choices when eating takeaways or food in a restaurant. Clearly signposting healthy meal options, providing clear nutritional information, and offering appropriate portion sizes can help this.”
Can we be trusted?
But can we really be trusted to make the right food choices? Mary-Lou Harris, the senior nutritionist at New You Boot Camp, isn’t so sure: “Much in the same way that smokers ignore the health warnings on cigarette packets, people who are ‘addicted’ to fast food will look past the labels and give in to temptation.
“If your blood sugar levels are low for whatever reason – a lack of protein and/or a high-carb diet, for example – you’ll start craving convenience food as soon as you see it. And you’re likely to do this at the expense of common sense or intellectual reasoning. That’s why I feel strongly that there should be greater restrictions placed on the number of fast-food outlets in certain areas, such as near schools.”
Where will it end?
The counter-argument, of course, is that many of us don’t appreciate being ‘nannied’ in this way. We might, for example, regard a takeaway meal as an occasional treat – but we still appreciate the amount of options that are open to us when we do decide to indulge. Why should that choice be taken away from everyone in order to protect the health of a few?
And where do the restrictions end? If there’s no chip shop, what’s to stop someone from buying a packet of biscuits from the supermarket and devouring them all in one go instead? Closing down fast-food outlets may well be seen as slamming the stable door shut long after the horse has bolted.
For now, though, the takeaways are here to stay – and the responsibility lies with each of us to make informed choices about what we eat and when. The nutritional therapist Emma Wight-Boycott has this advice: “It pays to think ahead. Nobody really feels like cooking a huge meal from scratch at the end of a busy day. But you can remove the temptation of the fast-food outlet by knowing you have something tasty, nutritious and, above all, quick to prepare – such as salmon and steamed veg – at home.
“Alternatively, you can prepare healthier takeaway-style meals, such as curries and kebabs, in advance and keep them in the freezer. All you have to do is heat them up and serve with salad and wholemeal pitta when you get home.”
Finally – whisper it – not all fast-food options are bad for you. Choose wisely and you can still eat pretty healthily. Mary-Lou’s favourite? Nando’s. “The chicken is free-range and grilled and you never have to buy a chip. Instead, choose a side order of sweet potato mash – which is much better for your blood sugar levels than ordinary mash or chips. Always try to have a side order of vegetables, too.
“Likewise, if you’re opting for a Chinese or Indian takeaway, avoid stodgy sides such as white rice, noodles and naan and choose green veggies instead.” If rice comes as standard with the dish, don’t be afraid to ask for vegetables as a substitute. Most outlets will happily oblige, in the hope of gaining your repeat custom.
In the meantime, many fast-food chains are bowing to pressure and introducing healthier options and clearer labelling anyway. Just because you’ve been lured through the doors, it doesn’t mean you’re faced with wall-to-wall temptation. You can always opt for a bag of carrot sticks at McDonald’s, a gluten-free Superfood Salad at PizzaExpress or Satisfries ‘diet chips’ (30% less fat than ordinary fries, folks!) at Burger King. Over to you…