Calorie counts on menus: are they causing more harm than good?

Ella Beadman

The days of guilt free eating at a nice restaurant seem to be something of the past. While you don’t have to contend with the stress of figuring out what to eat, preparing the food and the dreaded clean up afterwards, you are instead faced with the number of calories in each dish staring back at you. Seems harmless enough, albeit slightly annoying right? Well, maybe not…

In April 2022 the government brought in the measure that mandated all large restaurants, cafes, and takeaways with 250+ employees to add calorie labels to their menus. The government claimed that this would level up the nation’s health’ by aiding consumers to make more informed, healthier choices’ in a bid to tackle obesity levels’ in the UK. While in theory this simple solution seems ideal, it fails to consider the harm it is doing in the process. Critics have condemned the move and have voiced concerns about the potential for it to trigger or exacerbate eating disorders, as well as feeding misleading information on nutrition and weight loss to the public.

it can worsen existing eating disorder behaviours, which can make people more unwell and recovery more difficult”

According to Beat Eating Disorders charity, around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Calorie counting is something that many with eating disorders struggle to unlearn as a habitual behaviour in order to heal their relationship with food and learn how to eat intuitively with a focus on nutrition and enjoyment rather than numbers. Beat’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, states that “including calories on menus can be extremely harmful for those with eating disorders” and that it can worsen existing eating disorder behaviours, which can make people more unwell and recovery more difficult”. Dr Stephen Anderson, consultant psychiatrist in eating disorders also notes that they hear from people with eating disorders that this would have a detrimental effect on them and their eating disorder. Additionally, a qualitative survey published in the British Journal of Health Psychology highlights its finding that calorie labelling on menus can adversely impact those with eating disorders. Therefore, not only does this new initiative completely blindside 1.25 million people with eating disorders but could push these figures even higher.

Higher calories are not always synonymous with unhealthy foods

Not only is this detrimental to the relationship many share with food, but it is a blunt instrument when it comes to dieting as it does not consider the nutrients that make up our food or the content of saturated fats and sugars that we are consuming. Higher calories are not always synonymous with unhealthy foods. For example, macadamia nuts, which provide 360 calories per 50g however they are high in healthy fats, fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. So, how can calories counts alone be a good indicator of what we should and should not be consuming?

Obesity specialist and assistant professor of medicine and paediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Dr Fatima Cody Stanford, states that this idea of ‘a calorie in and a calorie out’ when it comes to weight loss is not only antiquated, it’s just wrong”. She states that an emphasis should be put on improving a person’s diet quality as well as making sustainable lifestyle improvements to achieve a desired and healthy weight. Therefore, the aims of the campaign to help the public ‘make more informed, healthier choices’ is not being met, but rather it is feeding into the misconceptions surrounding diet culture.

Eating out for many is a treat and something to be enjoyed. A chance to socialise, try new and exciting food, and relax. It should not be tainted with the shame, anxiety and fear aroused by calorie counts and eating habits. The government should shift the focus of their health campaigns onto teaching people about proper nutrition so we can all make more informed choices about what we should be, and want to be, putting into our bodies to establish and maintain a healthy diet.

Ella Beadman

Featured image courtesy of Samuel Regan-Asante via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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