It is no coincidence that the rise in the prevalence of fast food outlets on high streets has been accompanied by a worrying increase in levels of obesity.

Fast food menus are loaded with calories due to the preponderance of meat and processed carbohydrates in the meals. As a result, a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Boneless Banquet packs in 1,080 calories while a McDonald’s Big Mac with regular fries and a regular drink has 1,015 calories. As the main meal of the day, apart from the paucity of fruit and veg, this would be fine in terms of calories for an adult.

However, the widespread availability of fast food outlets, their speed of service, long opening hours and low prices make them an attractive option when hunger starts to grumble during an afternoon or evening out in the town, and fast food is often therefore eaten as a between meals “snack”.

Add to this the insidious practice of ‘supersizing’ (upgrading to a large fries and a large drink for a minimal extra outlay) which can easily pile on another 150 calories, and it is a recipe for disaster.

Fast food chains start to take action on calorie content

The fast food operators have been slow to address the issue, but are beginning to act now. The calorific content of the items is now shown on the menus of the major chains, though customers may need good eyesight to read it.

KFC is testing thicker fries, which will therefore have a lower calorie content, and is also planning to include a vegetarian meal in its range. McDonald’s has had a vegetarian burger in its range for some time. Vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean low in calories, however, with Burger King’s Veggie Bean Burger packing in 550 calories – more than a Big Mac.

In the US, McDonald’s has announced that it is to stop using artificial preservatives, colourings and flavourings in its burgers (though not in the pickles inside them), again in a nod to the growing demand for healthier options. Meanwhile, KFC has pledged to reduce the calorific content of its meals in the UK by 20% by 2025, “the equivalent of wiping off 57 billion calories from KFC menus across the country”.

A reflection of the UK’s North-South divide

According to the UK Office for National Statistics, the number of takeaway outlets has risen by a third since 2010. In some towns, takeaways are the most common type of outlet in which to buy food:  in Rotherham, there are 170 takeaways, representing 58% of its food outlets.

In a separate study, The Royal Society for Public Health ranked towns and cities with a high proportion of fast food outlets, tanning salons, payday lenders and bookmakers as the unhealthiest, with the worst offenders being Grimsby, Walsall, Blackpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Northampton, Bolton, Wolverhampton, Huddersfield and  Bradford.

Like Rotherham, these are all located north of the Watford Gap – the geographical dividing line between the North and the South of England (with the exception of Northampton, which lies just south of the line). They are characterised by high unemployment, especially among the young, higher levels of poverty and above-average rates of obesity.

The reality is that the billions of calories referred to by KFC are not evenly spread throughout the country, but are concentrated in the most deprived areas, with the poorest health and education outcomes and the worst life expectancies.

The recent decision by the government to require that all fast food menus include the calorific content is hardly likely to scratch the surface. What is needed is decisive action to control portion sizes (though of course there is nothing to stop a customer buying two). This would have a tangible effect on obesity and health, with huge cost savings to the National Health Service. But perhaps more importantly, it would be a practical first step in reducing the North-South divide, and creating a more unified country that would be better positioned to deal with the outcome of Brexit, whatever form that takes.