Eat Out to Lose Weight? The Mixed Messages And Other Issues Of The Government’s New Weight Loss Plan

Gemma Cockrell

Since the government announced its weight loss plan, including the decision to display calories on restaurant menus, there have been a lot of differing opinions on whether this is a good idea, and whether it may cause more harm than good, especially for people suffering with eating disorders.

There have also been many people raising the question of how this plan coincides with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, as they appear to contradict each other. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme means that on Monday-Wednesday, you can get 50% off your meal during August, for up to £10 off per person. Both schemes were announced by the government within days of each other.

Putting calories on menus encourages people to eat fewer calories when they are eating out, opting for healthy options on the menu rather high calorie ones.

However, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme seems to be encouraging people to go out to eat more often, and it potentially encourages diners to buy the more expensive options on the menu, as they know they will be getting 50% off. The more expensive options are likely to be bigger portions and higher in calories.

How come we are being encouraged to eat healthier, but we are also being offered half price burgers and chips?

The fact that fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and KFC are participating in the scheme also seems to contradict with the government’s weight loss plan – how come we are being encouraged to eat healthier, but we are also being offered half price burgers and chips?

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme is only running during the month of August to try and encourage people who are wary to leave their houses after lockdown to go to restaurants and support the economy. The government could claim that running this scheme for only 4 weeks means that it will not affect their weight loss plans, and that right now the priority is the economy rather than weight loss.

For people suffering with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, putting calories on menus may cause more harm than good

It is not only the mixed messages that the government are sending out that are the problem – people are also raising problems with the weight loss scheme itself. For people suffering with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, putting calories on menus may cause more harm than good.

Calorie counting is often a symptom of eating disorders, as people suffering with eating disorders often strictly limit their calorie intake per day. Seeing how many calories are in the food they are eating at all times will therefore be destructive. It may mean they don’t feel comfortable enough to go to restaurants at all – especially as going to restaurants is something many already struggle with.

It may also cause people to develop eating disorders as they become hyperaware of how many calories they are eating.  This scheme could lead to people who are a healthy weight feeling as if they are eating too many calories and they may start to limit themselves, creating a destructive cycle of behaviour which may lead to an eating disorder.

Going to restaurants is a special treat for many people. It may be for a special occasion such as a birthday or a celebration. Therefore, surely those people should be allowed to treat themselves without feeling guilty over how many calories is in what they have ordered?

Research suggests that if people eat out, they consume 200 calories more than they would if they had eaten at home – but these people may eat healthily for the rest of the week when they are eating at home. Going out for food should be an occasion where it is okay to treat yourself without feeling guilty, as long as you eat healthily otherwise.

The scheme may be very helpful for people who are trying to lose weight, helping them to choose an option which has lower calories. However, it will not just affect those who need to lose weight. It will also affect those who are already a healthy weight or underweight. It may lead them to think that they need to lose weight themselves.

63% of adults are obese or overweight. It costs the NHS £6 billion a year.

There is obviously also a chance that some people who are overweight – the ones who the scheme is aimed at – may ignore the calories displayed on the menu and continue to choose the high calorie options. If someone is overweight, they may not realise, or they may not care. Therefore, the scheme will not help them.

Obesity is obviously an issue which needs tackling – 63% of adults are obese or overweight. It costs the NHS £6 billion a year. But is encouraging calorie counting the best way to tackle it? I’m not so sure.

Calories also don’t determine how healthy a food is – it is common knowledge that brown bread is better for you than white bread, but they both have the 77 calories in one slice.

Calories alone cannot be used to determine how healthy food is

The reason brown bread is healthier for you is because it contains wholegrains which provide more vitamins, minerals and fibre. However, this cannot be determined from calories. Therefore, calories alone cannot be used to determine how healthy food is.

Despite my issues with displaying calories on restaurant menus, I do support other parts of the campaign. Banning unhealthy food adverts before 9pm will mean that people see unhealthy food less often and are therefore less likely to become tempted by it, especially children.

60% of adverts for food between 6pm and 9pm are for unhealthy food according to Cancer Research UK – this is the main time of day that children watch TV as it is when they are home from school.

43% of food and drinks in prominent areas of the supermarket are unhealthy

I also agree that ending ‘buy one get one free’ offers on unhealthy foods will help to encourage people not to buy more unhealthy food than they need. Avoiding placing them near checkouts or entrances will also help.

If the offer didn’t exist or if people didn’t see the unhealthy food in obvious places, they would be much less likely to buy it. 43% of food and drinks in prominent areas of the supermarket are unhealthy!

This means that if people wish to treat themselves, they can choose to go into the shop and go to the sweet aisle, rather than going into the supermarket to buy healthy food, and being tempted by the unhealthy food last minute.

There is nothing wrong with treating yourself, but this means you can choose to treat yourself, instead of only doing it because its being placed right in front of you in a convenient place where it is easy to pick up!

I also agree that educating people on the calorie content of alcohol may help, because 80% of people are unaware of how many calories are in a large glass of wine. Educating people and making the information more obvious therefore means that they are aware of it, and then can make the decision whether to reduce their consumption.

Overall, I do support the governments plans to help weight loss, except for the introduction of calorie counting in restaurants. I think the risk of it causing more harm than good is too great.

I agree that the information should be available in some form for those who are trying to lose weight, but that this could be done more subtly, for example on the restaurant’s website, as it means that those who are actively trying to lose weight can search it for themselves.

In this way, it wouldn’t encourage people who are not actively trying to lose weight to start calorie counting, and it won’t be potentially triggering for those who are suffering from or recovering from eating disorders. I do not know if this would work effectively, but I think it would be less likely to cause harm rather than the information being inescapable when on menus.

Gemma Cockrell

Featured image courtesy of  Dan Gold on Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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