High calorie food dominates high streets

IF a typical high street even exists these days, Woodfield Street in Morriston – a less affluent area of Swansea – would pretty much fit the bill. All those things you can’t do on the internet – getting your hair cut, eyebrows plucked, and lying on a sunbed – are catered for. Low on vaping supplies? Woodfield Street has it covered.

Calorie-dense food also proliferates. I counted 14 takeaways, three well-known bakery and sandwich chains, a dessert shop, plus cafes and smaller food stores, although this included a short section of adjoining Clase Road. I spotted one butcher’s – Thomas’s of Morriston – but no greengrocers. That’s not to say none of the shops sold fruit and veg, it’s just that the options were limited.

At the risk of simplifying a complex issue, a small amount of calorie-dense – or high-energy food – has a lot of calories. Humans are naturally attracted to this sort of food, it’s enjoyable, and it can leave us feeling less full afterwards than a healthy, balanced meal, for reasons including a lack of fibre and water and a more pronounced spike and fall in blood sugar levels.

“We are naturally attracted to foods that are high in fat and sugar,” said Professor Michelle Lee, of Swansea University’s faculty of medicine, health and life science. “From an evolutionary perspective we are pushed towards them. Our human ancestors needed to eat when they saw food. The biological systems that regulate body weigh, appetite, feeling of satiety (feeling full) are pre-designed to staving off hunger.”

And this, she said, can cause problems in today’s world of relative food abundance and the way food was marketed. Prof Lee said: “In general the systems in our body that underpin our appetite are designed for a time when there was not much food available.”

She added: “Some people put on weight more easily than others. What we know is that it’s the interaction between our own biology, which is largely dictated by our genes, and also the interaction with our environment.” And Woodfield Street and Clase Road are different environments to Newton Road and Mumbles Road, in the more affluent Mumbles, which has a greengrocer and fish counter, for example. “We don’t have a level playing field for people,” said Prof Lee.

According to the Welsh Government, more than 60% of adults in Wales are above a healthy weight and more than a quarter of children are overweight or obese by the time they start school. Prof Lee said stigmatising people living with obesity was unhelpful and should be avoided. Put simply, she said, our varying genetic make-up could cause one person to feel less full after eating the same food than someone else.

“There are particular genes that pre-dispose us to gain weight, for a number of reasons,” she said. “Some people’s genes do work against them. It’s a nuance that’s often missed. And for these people with a genetic risk, the environment can also work against them.”

Humans can restrain themselves, but Prof Lee said tiredness and stress could weaken restraint. She added: “I don’t think it’s a moral failing to succumb to temptation.”

In Morriston, Raj Meah, who has just opened Cafe Dessert to add to his long-running takeaway, Jubo Raj, said: “People come here (to Woodfield Street) to eat or get their hair cut.” He said Lidl, which is a little further out towards the M4, had all the fruit and veg. “They sell it cheaper than anybody – you can’t go against them,” he said.

The prevalence of takeaways and signs advertising food delivery firms was not lost on people in Woodfield Street. “They seem to be the only places that are open,” said Pam Pugh, of Pontardawe. “Everything is on an app now. I think we have got really lazy as a culture.” Her husband, Nigel, said takeaways might have become more attractive for people living on their own because the gas or electricity needed to cook food had become much more expensive.

Mary Williams, of Morriston, wasn’t a takeaway fan. “It’s the smell that upsets me,” she said. She had recently taken her grandchildren to a well-known high street sandwich chain, and wasn’t impressed. “Rubbish food,” she said. “I couldn’t look at it.” She added: “It’s so much cheaper to cook at home. If you buy a nice bag of minced beef you can make a chilli con carne or spaghetti bolognese, and freeze it.” Vegetarian options are available.

Lisa Miller, of Clase, said she cooked from scratch and also treated herself to a takeaway a couple of times a month. Learning how to cook when young, she said, was important. “I always watched my mother cooking, and my nana doing the same,” she said.

Not everybody has that early connection with cooking. It was part of the culture growing up in Naples, Italy, for Antonio Meoli, whose Woodfield Street business Bite & Go opened last November, selling home-made pasta dishes, paninis and pizzas. “In Italy, the kitchen is very important,” he said. Everybody, he said, learns how to cook a bit. His partner, Imma Luciani – an Italian teacher who was helping out during the school holidays – said: “People are recognising the quality of the food here. They are coming more and more.”

As if on cue a customer, Mo Uddin, who works for Principality Building Society, Woodfield Street, said: “When I saw this place open I thought, finally, some different food,” he said. “It is like home-cooked food.” He dashed out, vowing to return later in the week.

Woodfield Street’s takeaways wouldn’t exist if people didn’t buy their food. Many of us love an Indian or Chinese meal, while kebabs are the go-to option for others. With so much retail space making way for hospitality businesses, food is everywhere, not least at the touch of a smartphone. And buy a coffee at even the health-conscious cafe, flapjacks, cookies and cakes are almost invariably at the counter. Meanwhile food programmes, articles and images saturate the media.

However, healthy food messaging has arguably never been so available, and fruit and veg are usually the first things on display when you enter a supermarket. The Welsh Government wants more healthy and affordable food choices to be available, and consulted the public about it last summer.

Told about the number of takeaways in Woodfield Street, and asked if it wished to curtail the prevalence of calorie-dense food in Wales, a Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “Limiting hot food takeaways was considered as part of the healthy food environment consultation. We are considering how best to take forward this proposal but the consultation made it clear that a range of action was needed to support local authorities and food shops and takeaways to provide people with healthy and affordable food and drink options.”

She added that officials were working with health boards and councils local “to prioritise health impact assessments in decision-making” about new takeaway planning applications.

Some people will argue that low physical activity levels have to be addressed, and Prof Lee said a study in America showed that people who lost weight kept that weight off for longer if they exercised. She added that exercise also had benefits for people with stress and depression.

The next time you order a coffee and find yourself staring at the cakes and flapjacks, despite not feeling hungry when you walked through the door, Prof Lee said your brain was basically preparing for food and sending signals to the digestive system accordingly. “Your desire to eat will increase, but your physiological hunger might be the same,” she said. Showcasing tasty treats is not a UK-only phenomenon. Walk past any cafe in Lisbon, Portugal, for example, and you’d think half the population worked in the paste de nata (custard tart) industry.

It’s seems a tricky area for the state to intervene in. Businessman and campaigner Henry Dimbleby was a non-executive board member at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and conducted a review of the food system. His recommendations included taxes being applied to sugar and salt purchased by manufacturers, with revenue raised supporting expanding free school meals and supporting better diets among the poorest.

The review also said our eating habits were badly damaging the environment. Mr Dimbleby was critical in his assessment of the UK Government’s response, and resigned. The Department of Health and Social Care said it took tackling obesity seriously and that it would to continue to work closely with the food industry to make it easier for people to make healthier choices.

In Wales, meal deals with a high fat, sugar or salt content are to be restricted under Welsh Government plans to tackle obesity and diabetes. The new law, applying to businesses which employ more than 50 people, would also prevent retailers from temporarily lowering prices and offering promotions such as two-for-one on the unhealthiest foods. It’s due to be introduced next year and rolled out in 2025. The Welsh Retail Consortium said it was particularly concerned over plans to restrict price promotions and restrict products in meal deals. “Promotions within categories allow retailers and brands to compete to attract customers, improving competition and keeping prices down,” it said.

In Morriston, one shopper in Woodfield Street said times always changed, and that maybe in a few years new businesses would replace some of the takeaways. And, for the record, it does still has some shops, plus estate agents, dentists and a pub.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said butcher Bryan Thomas. “We don’t want towns to die. You will survive if you go with the times and give people what they want.” And that includes takeaways. “They service demand, don’t they,” he said.

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