Study and train throughout COVID-19. Learn more

Balancing 'Eat Out to Help Out' with Nutritional Eating

From 3 – 31 August, the UK government launched the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which is offering diners a 50% discount on food and non-alcoholic drinks when they dine in participating establishments. The scheme is only available from Mondays to Wednesdays and offers a maximum discount of £10 per diner and can be used repeatedly.

With no minimum spend, no need to present a voucher and no limit on how many times you participate in the scheme, the Eat Out to Help Out strategy has been well-designed to boost the struggling hospitality industry. Long queues outside restaurants, cafes and bars suggest the scheme has proven popular with the public. However, given that the government also recently launched a new strategy to tackle obesity in response to evidence which suggests being overweight increases risk of death from Covid-19, perhaps mixed messages are being sent out.

The UK government’s own website states that scientific research has found that people over-consume calories if they eat out, as compared to a meal which is prepared at home. Data also tells us that portions of food and drink that people eat out or eat as takeaway meals contain, on average, twice as many calories as equivalent retailer own-brand or manufacturer-branded products and often food which is high in calories and low in nutrition is cheaper and easier to prepare than healthier, home-cooked food.

Studies which investigate patterns of eating out of home have found that eating out can contribute to a higher fat intake than intake of protein or carbohydrates in women and reduced fibre intake. Both men and women are likely to have a higher intake of sugar and starch and lower levels of calcium and vitamin C if they eat out.

Furthermore, studies have found that consumption of fast food two or more times per week is associated with a 31% higher prevalence of moderate abdominal obesity in men and a 25% higher prevalence in women. A theoretical model predicted that the energy increase as a result of eating out on a regular basis, can lead to a weight increase of 1kg per year, independent of baseline body weight5. Moreover, women who eat out just once a week are 15% less likely to be able to maintain their weight, as compared to women who rarely (i.e. once a month, or less) or never eat takeaway food5.

A growing body of evidence suggests poor dietary habits can contribute to a variety of negative health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Further studies into the effects of eating out on a regular basis are still required, and improved cooperation between nutritionists and chefs at food outlets is required to improve the nutritional quality of meals for diners. In late July 2020, the UK government announced the Better Health campaign, which aims to tackle obesity. One of the many strategies this campaign plans to roll out, includes mandatory nutritional, calorie labelling on all meals on menus in large takeaways and restaurants which will allow customers to make better-informed choices when eating out.

Anne-Marie O’Shea, Nutrition Specialist at Future Fit Training says:

“People tend to be less restrained when they eat out – they are more likely to have more than one course and order side dishes. Portion sizes can also be much larger than we would have at home. For example, we might share a pizza when we eat at home but have one to ourselves when we eat out. I think the discount will probably encourage over consumption of calories unless people are really careful”.

However, this doesn’t have to mean that we shouldn’t be availing the scheme. It is possible to participate and support your local businesses while avoiding piling on the pounds.

Here are Anne-Marie’s tips:

  1. Plan where you will be dining out and your meal in advance. Although there are long-term plans for mandatory calorie counts to be included alongside meals on menus, this scheme isn’t in place yet. Most chain restaurants have started to include nutritional information on their company websites which can be a useful starting point.
  2. Aim to keep your meal below 1000 calories, this is half of what the average person should be consuming on a daily basis. Although this sounds like a lot, you’ll be surprised to know this isn’t an unusual calorie count for some of the healthier sounding dishes on the menu.
  3. On days you plan to eat out in the evening, try to compensate throughout the day by having lighter, healthier meals. That said - don’t arrive at the restaurant absolutely starving as you’ll find it much harder to make sensible choices.
  4. Alcoholic drinks are not included in the discount, but soft drinks are. Soft drinks are typically high in sugar and empty calories therefore don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of ordering them just because they are discounted.
  5. Irrespective of whether you’re eating out or at home, it’s always a good idea to pause regularly throughout your meal and allow yourself to stop eating when you’re full. Don’t let the thought of discounted food lure you into eating more food than your body needs.

In addition to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, the UK lockdown has had a severe effect on the general health of the population. Reports have shown that people were snacking more frequently, increasing their intake of alcohol and had lower levels of physical activity than usual. Therefore, each of these behaviours combined with easier accessibility to cheap, high calorie foods are expected to contribute to increasing obesity levels over the next few months, however sensible decision making, and pre-planning meals can help you stay in control.