By Matt Keracher, Royal Society for Public Health

Obesity is the most pressing public health issue we face in the UK. Around two thirds of the adult population are now overweight or obese and this figure looks set to rise in the coming decades. It’s clear that current health information and interventions aren’t doing enough to help lower obesity levels that are costing the economy and NHS upwards of £15 billion per year. If bold and innovative initiatives are not implemented, obesity looks set to tip our already stretched National Health Service beyond breaking point.

At the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), we have just published a paper calling for one such initiative: the introduction of ‘activity equivalent’ calorie labelling on food and drink. This would entail packaging featuring small symbols showing the minutes of physical activity needed to burn off the calories contained within. Our research showed almost two thirds of the public (63%) were supportive of its introduction and over half (53%) said they would make healthy behaviour changes as a result, such as choosing a healthier product, eating a smaller portion or being more physically active.

Medical professionals and public health campaigners are not the only ones who can contribute to the battle against obesity. The food and restaurant industries have a major role to play in aiding people to make healthier choices and live an active, well-balanced lifestyle. Restaurant groups, chains and caterers who know the nutritional value of their food can easily provide ‘activity equivalent’ calorie information using an exercise calorie calculator, such as the one found on the British Heart Foundation’s website. Even small independent restaurants and cafes could use a calorie calculator to provide an estimated ‘activity equivalent’ calorie values on their menus, in order to promote the importance of physical activity and general good health and wellbeing among their customers. After all, active and healthy customers are returning customers.

Providing customers with clear and understandable information about what they are consuming is vital. Once people are given this information, they can make informed decisions about what they eat and drink. Independent restaurants and cafes can be clear and transparent about what is in their food and make sure to give this information to customers in a way which is simple to understand and can be processed quickly. This could also serve as a motivation for restaurants and cafes to make their food healthier. Reducing the amount of sugar and fat in meals can make a big difference to customers’ calorie intake and make an impact on our nation’s expanding waistlines.

Creating an environment conducive to promoting physical activity is another way in which restaurants and cafes can play their part in helping to tackle obesity. Providing information about local walking clubs, discounted gym access or sporting opportunities is a relatively low-cost and easy way in which restaurants and cafes can show they’re conscious of their role in helping their patrons keep active and healthy.

The problem with obesity is it doesn’t have one solution. Action is needed from as many different parts of society as possible, including those selling food to the public, and restaurants and cafes are in prime position to provide the public with healthy messages. Keeping people healthy keeps them coming back, which is good for public health and good for business.

For more information about RSPH’s report on ‘activity equivalent’ calorie labelling please visit this link.