Celebrity chefs can’t be blamed for obesity rates

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday April 24 2013

It's unfair to blame TV chefs for rising obesity rates

"TV chefs 'adding to obesity crisis by encouraging us to eat fatty dishes'," reports the Metro, with similar stories blaming celebrity chefs for our bulging waistlines in much of the media.

The news is based on analysis of the nutritional values of randomly selected recipes created by celebrity chefs. Researchers found that most of the recipes analysed exceeded national healthy eating benchmarks on fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt intake.

The problem with this study, and the media’s reporting of it, is that it assumes that unhealthy recipes lead to higher rates of obesity, which has not been shown to be the case.

We cannot draw reliable conclusions on the effects of these findings because, for example, we don’t know if these recipes are cooked and eaten frequently and we don’t know how other recipes compare.

It seems unlikely that cooking some of these recipes for a special occasion or as a treat will harm your health, especially if you eat a balanced diet and compensate for treats with healthier options at other mealtimes.

Read more about healthy eating.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Department of Health Professions at Coventry University, and was supported by the department and Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Public Health and is freely available on an open-access basis.

This story was widely covered, with nearly all papers leading with a headline blaming TV chefs for making us fatter or adding to the obesity crisis. The researchers’ claims that “Celebrity chefs are a likely hidden contributing factor to Britain’s obesity epidemic” were accepted without any serious scrutiny. The study presents no credible evidence that cookbooks containing unhealthy recipes are directly responsible for obesity rates.

Celebrity chefs can have a positive effect on people’s diets, and to blame them for Britain’s rising obesity levels is an oversimplification of the problem.

Somewhat unfairly, many of the news stories featured a photo of Nigella Lawson. While some of her recipes may be unhealthy, the celebrity chefs included in this study were not named.

A similar study, published in 2012, comparing ready meals with celebrities’ recipes was reported in the same uncritical way.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study that analysed the nutritional composition of British-based celebrity chefs’ recipes.

The researchers wanted to compare the nutrient content with national benchmark recommendations for certain nutrients and healthy eating guidelines, such as the advice to eat less than six grams of salt a day.

Although this study allows conclusions about the nutritional content of recipes to be drawn, it does not assess the impact of celebrity chefs’ recipes on people’s diets. The findings of this study do not allow us to determine whether celebrity chefs are “adding to the obesity crisis”, because, for example, we don’t know how often these meals are eaten.

 

What did the research involve?

Recipes by celebrity chefs were randomly selected. Celebrity chefs were professional cooks whose recipe books appeared on Amazon’s “top one hundred bestselling books of 2009” or who were featured on the Good Food Channel’s website as a celebrity chef.

To be eligible, recipes had to be suitable for the general public, rather than being targeted at, for example, children or people who wanted to lose weight.

In total, 904 recipes from 26 celebrity chefs were selected at random. All types of recipes (for example breakfast, lunch, starter, evening meal and dessert) were eligible for inclusion.

Researchers used computerised dietary analysis software to work out nutritional content of the recipes. For each recipe they worked out the levels of:

  • total energy
  • protein
  • carbohydrate
  • fat
  • sodium
  • salt

The nutritional value of each recipe was compared against national healthy eating benchmark guidelines using a ‘healthy eating index’, which measured how far each recipe deviated from national recommendations.

 

What were the basic results?

Recipes from the 26 chefs differed significantly in the energy, protein, carbohydrate, fat and salt and sodium content per portion.

Per portion:

  • Recipes from 22 of the 26 chefs had fat content on average above the ‘high fat content’ criteria.
  • Recipes from 24 of the 26 chefs had saturated fat content on average above the ‘high saturated fat content’ criteria.
  • Recipes from 16 of the 26 chefs had sugar content on average above the ‘high sugar content’ criteria.
  • Recipes from seven of the 26 chefs had salt content on average above the ‘high salt content’ criteria.

On average, recipes had nutritional levels substantially above healthy eating guidelines (meaning that on average they contained more fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt than recommended).

The researchers calculated that 13% of recipes met or were below healthy eating guidelines (meaning that on average they had less fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt than the recommended limits), whereas 87% exceeded healthy eating guidelines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the meals were analysed by meal type subgroup, desserts were the meal type that exceeded healthy eating guidelines the most.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that, “although variation in the nutritional composition of recipes existed between celebrity chefs, there was still a general trend whereby excessive amounts of total fat, [saturated fat], sugars and salt were evident. The majority of recipes analysed had unhealthy nutritional compositions in accordance with national healthy eating benchmark recommendations, and therefore celebrity chefs could potentially be a hidden contributory factor to current public health nutrition issues, through exacerbating Britain’s already unbalanced dietary intake”.

 

Conclusion

This study has found that many celebrity chefs’ recipes exceed national recommendations for fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt intake.

However, although the researchers and the media have speculated on the effect that this may have, this research does not investigate this question and no conclusions can be drawn. For example, we don’t know if these recipes are cooked and eaten frequently, and we don’t know how the nutritional value of these celebrity chefs’ recipes compares with more humble cooks’ recipes.

It is also important to repeat the fact that celebrity chefs who targeted their recipes at people concerned about weight management or who were on a diet were excluded from the study.

Often, TV chefs’ recipes are designed to be ‘event meals’, with the meal being cooked for a special occasion such as a birthday or dinner party. It is unlikely that someone would use a cookbook to cook all their meals.

It is similarly unlikely that cooking some of these recipes for a special occasion or a treat will harm your health, especially if you eat a healthy balanced diet the rest of the time.

Read more about healthy eating and good food.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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Media last reviewed: 14/05/2013

Next review due: 14/05/2015

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