Eating out didn't make me fat, but counting the calories did!

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For 20 years, on and off, I made a living as a restaurant critic and food writer. I loved food and wine and the whole sociable escapism of eating out. 

There were certain foods that would make me rub my hands in glee. I call them ‘filthy’ foods — lardo, which is smoked pig fat, rendering into a piece of grilled bread; pommes aligot, potatoes blended with cheese and garlic into stretchy ribbons of pure heaven. 

The more restaurant visits I racked up, though, the more I understood that the food and wine were only ever part of the story. There was also the crucial element of atmosphere, or what one friend in that world likes to call ‘the vibes’. 

Katie Spicer, a former food critic, explains why we should not be counting calories and how calories from different food groups actually work

Katie Spicer, a former food critic, explains why we should not be counting calories and how calories from different food groups actually work

Some restaurants had a certain joylessness about them that, no matter how good the food or wine, made one itch to leave. It could be down to bad lighting, rude or excessively attentive wait staff, a wobbly table, or symbols beside certain dishes suggesting they were ‘low fat’ or that cringingly silly expression, a ‘healthy option’. 

And you can multiply that vibeless gloom by ten now that it’s mandatory for restaurants, cafes and takeaways that employ more than 250 people to carry calorie counts on their menus. 

Yes, this will mostly impact fast food and High Street chains, but some seriously good British restaurant groups will also be affected. Take the wonderful steakhouse Hawksmoor, or fun, authentic Mexican restaurant Wahaca, or Terence Conran’s old group D&D. 

As if life wasn’t miserable enough at the moment, now we have to know that the ‘best’ starter is a sad side salad and the ‘best’ main course is a plate of boring poached fish with steamed spinach. 

As a critic, there are certain dishes you can use to benchmark the skill of a kitchen. One of mine is risotto. The texture of the rice, its singular, heavenly unctuousness, is due in part to the application of cream, parmesan, olive oil and, of course, butter. Loads of butter. 

I’d be amazed if there’s a starter portion of risotto anywhere that comes in at less than 1,000 calories, which is half the recommended daily intake for women. 

Nothing sucks the joy from the life-affirming (and expensive) treat of a visit to a wonderful restaurant like being forced to ‘watch’ what you eat. Yet this is what the Nanny State has foisted upon us. 

In theory, it’s all part of the Government’s plan to tackle our obesity crisis. The reality is, it won’t make a difference. 

Nobody is denying that obesity is one of our greatest health challenges. In England, 63 per cent of adults are overweight or obese, costing the NHS an estimated £6.1billion a year, according to Public Health England. 

In Scotland the figure is higher still, at 65 per cent. In the U.S., calorie counts on chain restaurant menus have been required by law since 2018 — yet the country is still the 12th fattest in the world. 

Katie (pictured) says calories from something containing protein, fat and fibre-rich carbs ¿ say, a lentil ¿ will act very differently in the human body than the same number of calories from, say, a can of Coke

Katie (pictured) says calories from something containing protein, fat and fibre-rich carbs — say, a lentil — will act very differently in the human body than the same number of calories from, say, a can of Coke

Nearly 80 per cent of the American population remains overweight, with 16 states measuring adult obesity to be more than 35 per cent. Seeing the calories printed on their Dunkin’ Donuts boxes and Subway sandwiches hasn’t done the trick. 

Similarly, seeing four-digit calorie figures next to my favourite risotto will not stop me ordering it. I don’t count calories, you see. Instead, I count myself very fortunate to know that calories are a useless way of measuring the healthiness of any given meal. 

Last year, Dr Giles Yeo released a much-praised book, Why Calories Don’t Count: How We Got the Science of Weight Loss Wrong. I asked Dr Yeo who advised the Government that sticking calories on menus was a good idea, and he said: ‘Good question. Certainly not me!’ 

 Life is joyless enough without having to eat a sad side salad

Dr Yeo is a research scientist at Cambridge University and one of the country’s foremost obesity experts. He says: ‘One hundred calories from a Mars Bar is very different from 100 calories from celery. Calories are an easy proxy: more calories bad, fewer calories good. But they are really just a little puff of energy.’ 

Calories from something containing protein, fat and fibre-rich carbs — say, a lentil — will act very differently in the human body than the same number of calories from, say, a can of Coke. 

‘From 100 calories of protein we only ever get 70 per cent of that value,’ says Dr Yeo. ‘And if the calories are from a carb, it’s crucial to know if there is fibre in there, whether it’s got added sugar.’ 

Yet the idea that we should count calories is so engrained that getting people to stop fixating solely on them is like ‘swimming against treacle’, he says. 

Nutritionist and former model Rosemary Ferguson goes even further. 

‘Evidence shows counting calories for weight loss results in more weight gain, and a reduction in serotonin because of the relationship strain it creates with food,’ she says. ‘Food goes from a pleasure to a laborious task.’ 

All through my late teens and early 20s, I carried around a little paperback calorie-counting guide. I was on a constant quest to be thinner. I loved food and cooking, but bouts of stupid dieting denied me those deep pleasures. I justified diets focused on cabbage soup, or Jelly Babies, or bananas. What mattered was that I didn’t exceed the ‘correct’ number of calories per day. 

Things weren’t helped by the fact that I ate almost entirely carbs, which are on paper low calorie, but cannot, without fat and protein, ever leave you mentally or physically satiated. Every diet left me chubbier and sadder than before. Yet by the Government’s definition, I was doing the right thing. 

When I hit 30 or so, I threw that stupid calorie-counting paperback in the bin. Instead, I started eating real food — nuts, red meat, avocados, chicken skin, liver, bread. 

Yes, I ate masses of veg, but with olive oil and butter, fullfat milk, baked potatoes, pudding, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, cheese, cream. All the foods I’d so long denied myself. I expected to pile on the weight but … I lost it. 

Then my weight stabilised, and remains the same today at 52 as it was when I was 30. Possibly a bit less, in fact. The difference is that I learned to stop counting calories and instead began to be sensible about food. 

The same set of laws that introduced calorie counts on menus include restrictions on junk food advertising to children. Now this is a good idea. 

 Dinners will become exercises in restraint and misery

Every now and again, all us food critics would (with a tad of bitchy reluctance) get together for a charity event. What struck me was that, save for a few exceptions, none of us who ate food for a living was especially tubby. A couple were even stick-thin. 

Which goes to show that eating out isn’t a cause of the obesity crisis. Our fixation on calories, on the other hand, might well be. And so are food poverty, and lack of education and access to fresh products. 

Substituting a salad for a small plate of risotto made with a quarter of a pound of butter (yes, good risotto requires a lot of the stuff) will make a difference to your life, it’s true. It will make you more miserable. 

It will turn your dinner out into an exercise in restraint and misery. Feeling shortchanged, you’ll go home and eat Pringles to cheer yourself up. At least you can reassure yourself that they have fewer calories per 100g than the risotto you turned down.

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