According to UK national daily The Times, PHE told fast-food chains and manufacturers of supermarket ready-meal makers to limit the calorie content of lunches and dinners to 600 calories and breakfast to 400.
“This is all about things like pizzas and readymade sandwiches,” said PHE’s chief nutritionist Alison Tedstone. “We will need to set out guidelines and, I suspect, a series of calorie caps.”
A spokesperson for industry trade group the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) told FoodNavigator it was aware that PHE is working on developing an energy - as measured by calories - reduction programme.
“We are pleased that the government has confirmed the broadening of its focus beyond just sugar - and towards calories - as it seeks to tackle obesity. FDF has long advocated this ‘whole diet’ approach," the spokesperson said.
“Singling out the role of individual ingredients and food groups does not help consumers to make good choices about their diet, lifestyle or general health."
As the report and details of the full programme have not yet been released, FDF would not comment further.
Focus on sugar 'unnecessarily narrow'
British media reports on the calorie caps likened the measure to putting Britain on a diet.
“The traditional January detox when Britons stop drinking and start dieting could last all year under new government health guidelines,” reads The Times article.
However, dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton welcomed the news.
“We know that the calorie density of our diet, and the portion sizes, have been creeping up for years. There is no doubt that this, in combination with cheap foods and drinks promoted 24-hours a day, has contributed to obesity levels.
“I’ve always felt that the focus on sugar was unnecessarily narrow as it is only one of the key contributors to the calories in our diet – the others being saturated fats and alcohol. Therefore, I’m pleased that the attention has broadened to look at overall calories which can be limited by reformulation or portion size control."
Good communication essential
Campaign manager at Action on Sugar Jenny Rosborough said: "It’s imperative that PHE’s programme clearly recommends the source of the excess calories that are reduced in order to ensure that manufacturers are responsible for improving the overall nutritional value of the foods we are consuming.
"PHE must also carefully consider how, and if, this area of work is communicated to the public. Public health messaging should focus on encouraging the consumption of nutritious foods rather than talking about calorific foods in isolation.
"The benefit of getting manufacturers to change the food at source will improve dietary intake across the whole population, not just those who are engaged with healthy living and actively able to choose healthier foods."
Ruxton said she hoped PHE would also encourage manufacturers to consider the benefit side of the equation by finding ways to put fibre and nutrients back into processed foods.
This could be through incorporating more wholegrain ingredients into foods, as well as fruit, vegetables and some dietary fibres such as inulin, beta-glucan, pectin and resistant starch.
Earlier this month, PHE launched its healthy eating ‘Change4Life’ campaign, which urged parents to give children a maximum of two 100-calorie snacks per day, effectively ruling out many chocolate bars and snacks. These often contain more than 200 calories.
Action and words
Despite its name, recommendations made by Public Health England apply in the whole of the UK: Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as well as England.
In 2015, the advisory body published its overdue report on tackling obesity, which urged restrictions on price promotions, curbs on junk food marketing and a sugar tax.
“PHE does see there is a role for a fiscal approach in reducing sugary drink consumption. The higher the tax increase the greater the effect,” it said.
Five months later, the government announced a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.