Announcing an ambitious government “Call to Action” to tackle obesity among Britons, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said on Thursday that the UK population has to cut 5 billion calories from its daily diet, the equivalent of 20 premiership football pitches covered in cheeseburgers, or four Olympic sized swimming pools full of caffè latte.

“We have to halt and then reverse the tide of obesity in this country,” he told the press.

The Call to Action announces a new goal for reversing the overweight and obesity trend in England. Speaking at the launch, Lansley said businesses have to take part as well, alongside government and NGOs. There is an urgent need to change the environment people live in, and to help each and every person make healthier choices so that by 2020 there is a trend to reduce the excess weight of the nation.

Lansley said while the government has a role to play, it can’t do it alone.

“We need to work in a broad partnership with local authorities, businesses, charities, health professionals and individuals,” he urged.

“We have already seen how we can move further, faster through the Responsibility Deal and I am now challenging business to help us make even greater progress,” said Lansley, explaining that reducing the number of calories in people’s daily diet was an “essential” part of the plan.

“It can happen if we continue action to reduce calories in everyday foods and drinks, and if all of us who are overweight take simple steps to reduce our calorie intake,” he added.

Over 60% of England’s adults and one third of her 10 and 11-year-olds are either overweight or obese.

England’s Department of Health says that eating and drinking too many calories is the heart of the obesity problem.

It says that on average, men should consume no more than 2605 calories a day, and women no more than 2079. This is according to a recent detailed analysis by the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).

Professor Alan Jackson, who chairs the SACN’s Energy Requirements working group, said they used the most up to date methods and concluded the average energy requirements for the UK needed revising.

“This information is crucial for health professionals and those planning menus for specific groups, for example, people in care homes,” said Jackson.

However, in reality, most adults are eating more calories than they need, even more than the new figures published today.

On average, an obese man regularly consumes around 500 kcal more than a healthy weight man every day.

“Most people would be surprised to realise how much they are overeating — on average we are consuming around 10% more calories than we need,” said Jackson, explaining that this was why the UK has an obesity problem, and it “is clear we cannot carry on eating this amount of excess without serious public health consequences”.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies expressed her support for the Call to Action. She said everyone needs to be more honest with themselves about what they eat and drink, and for most people, adults and children alike, that means eating and drinking less.

“Obesity is a leading cause of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We must get to grips with the problem now to save lives and money in the future,” she urged, explaining that:

“Most of us are eating or drinking more than we need to and are not active enough. Being overweight or obese is a direct consequence of eating more calories than we need. Increasing physical activity is a part of the equation, but reducing the amount of calories we consume is key.”

She also emphasized that businesses, local authorities and other sectors have to play their part, but it is also up to individuals to take responsibility:

“This means thinking about what we eat and thinking about the number of calories in our diets to maintain a healthy weight,” said Davies.

The Call to Action aims to reverse the tide of obesity by 2020, that is by then, the number of overweight or obese people has to be falling. In order to do this, the plan recognizes the following needs:

  • A new approach that helps people reach and maintain a health weight.
  • Full collaboration from public, private, NGO sectors to change the daily living environment of individuals.
  • Continued investment in Change4Life, the UK government’s public health programme that started in January 2009 and encourages people to “eat well, move more, live longer”. Partners include major food producers and retailers, as well as sports and health organizations.
  • Local authorities to use their new powers to ring fence public health money and make a differene in their local communities.
  • Reduce the nation’s daily calorie intake by 5bn a day.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD