By Mark Richards.

There are more and more takeaways in the UK – and they are bad news for our waistlines, our health and – ultimately – the NHS. Is there anything that the government can do? And will we one day see a ‘takeaway tax?’

Earlier this week the BBC reported that ‘takeaways are flooding our high streets.’ The numbers certainly seemed to back that up:

  • The number of takeaways in the UK has increased by 34% in the last eight years
  • In 2010 there were 47 takeaways for 100,000 people: now the figure is 61 – meaning that there is one takeaway for every 1,639 people
  • In virtually every area surveyed (204 out of 215) the number of takeaways was higher than it was in 2010.

But those figures do not tell the whole story. If you look at the map of the UK, there are far more takeaways in poorer areas than there are in more affluent areas: South Yorkshire, for example, has a far greater concentration of takeaways than the leafy suburbs of Surrey.

Is the trend going to continue?

Around this time last year, we wrote an article entitled ‘Will Just Eat Gobble up the Restaurant Trade?’ Here’s part of that article:

“Just Eat continues to go from strength to strength, with orders jumping by almost 30% in the third quarter of the year, with revenue for the period rising from £94m to £138m – up 44%, which would suggest that we are now spending more on our takeaways. Just Eat are now forecasting revenues of £500-515m for the full year, significantly up on last year.”

What has happened since then? In the first three months of 2018 Just Eat orders were up by 32% as revenues climbed 49% compared to the same period in 2017, reaching £177m. Not only are we ordering more takeaways, but we are also spending more on them. So will the trend continue? On all the available evidence, yes.

Why is that bad news?

The recent figures – and the long-term trends – were greeted with alarm. Takeaways clogging our streets and clogging our arteries ran one headline.

The accepted wisdom is that the rise and rise of the takeaway is very bad news. Takeaway food – pizzas, kebabs, burgers and co – is high in calories and, along with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, is blamed for the rise of obesity in the UK. A slice of Domino’s pizza contains anywhere between 130 and 280 calories: a Big Mac contains 257. But that does not tell the full story: it is the garlic mushrooms we have with the pizza, the bottle of Coke, the sides with the Big Mac. The all too easy decision to ‘go large with that..’

What is a calorie?

First things first. Let us take a step back: just what is a calorie? We have all heard expressions like ‘this meal contains 1,000 calories’ but what is a calorie? Technically, it is a measure of energy: the kilogramme calorie (which is why you sometimes see calories on food labelling written as ‘kcals’) is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogramme of water by one degree.

And the same calories crop up in food. You might argue that equating the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of water with the amount of ‘energy’ in a cheeseburger is fairly silly but that is what we use and, for now, we are stuck with it.

So all food contains a certain number of calories and – as most of us know – a cheeseburger contains a lot more calories than some grilled tomatoes on a slice of unbuttered toast.

Interestingly, the calorie content of food was originally determined by burning a sample of the food in a calorimeter and measuring the change in the temperature of some surrounding water. Rather more boringly it is now done by direct analysis of the proteins, carbohydrates and fats within the food. But come on: who does not want to start the weekend by setting fire to an iceberg lettuce?

So how many calories do we need?

The Rising Tide of Takeaways

It is generally reckoned that the average man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain his weight and the average woman around 2,000. In order to lose one pound of weight a week, you need to eat roughly 500 calories per day less than those figures.

Inevitably those figures are only a guide. Sitting at my desk tapping away at my keyboard I clearly need fewer calories than someone who is physically active for eight hours a day. Someone who exercises regularly needs more calories than someone whose ideas of exercise is pressing the remote until Gogglebox comes on.

But there is one inescapable rule for all of us. If we consume more calories than we use then we will gain weight. If we want to lose weight, then we have to use more calories than we take in. And as anyone who has ever been on a diet knows, it is hard work. If I walk two miles I burn around 240 calories. If I have a slice of toast with butter and a cup of tea with one sugar when I get back from the walk I have more than replaced those calories.

But we have to do something?

Yes, we certainly do. Obesity is on course to overtake smoking as the main cause of cancer in women, and – as we have reported previously – the NHS spends £25,000 a minute (roughly a nurse’s salary) treating the almost-wholly preventable Type 2 Diabetes.

As early as 2014 campaigners and senior NHS staff were warning that obesity could bankrupt the NHS and since then the situation has only deteriorated. So could we ultimately see a ‘takeaway tax?’

On Monday Chancellor Philip Hammond presents his Budget and – if reports are to be believed – he will pledge more money to the NHS and largely fund this by raising taxes. Will there be a ‘takeaway tax?’ No – and neither will the government give local authorities the extra power to curb the spread of takeaways. As town centres continue to decline, the takeaway sector does at least continue to pay business rates to hard-pressed councils.

But sooner or later something has to give. The country cannot afford the long-term effects of an increasingly overweight population. It will be a brave – and unpopular – politician that finally grasps the nettle, but someone will have to do it…