The ticking time bomb of calories on menus

8 mins read

April 2022 holds a sense of dread for many people. 

This is the month where large businesses will be required to display the calorie information on menus and food labels, it comes as the government renews their drive to tackle obesity and encourage healthier choices while eating out. 

On the surface this seems a harmless initiative to make people more aware of what they are putting into their body. After all it comes from the fact that almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese. 

The impact that this will have on one group in particular has been forgotten about as the roll out begins. People who suffer with eating disorders will suffer greatly if this goes through. Roughly 1.2 million people in the UK suffer from eating disorders and recovery will be greatly stunted with this law. Counting calories is an enormous trigger for most people with eating disorders, self worth is valued on how little calories consumed, the lower the better. For

Now I see the argument. If nearly two thirds of adults are overweight but only 1.2 million people have eating disorders then the focus should be to benefit the majority. However there is not a lot of concrete evidence and studies proving that this is the most effective way for people to make healthy informed decisions. The Cochrane Review although showing that it would help, it wouldn’t be by a lot by about 48 calories for every average meal. 

The review’s lead author Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, UK, said that “There is no ‘magic bullet’ to solve the obesity problem, so while calorie labelling may help, other measures to reduce calorie intake are also needed.”

This uncertainty in result is immediately contrasted by the overwhelming evidence of how this legislation will impact people with disordered eating. The pandemic has already greatly impacted people developing disordered eating with BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, seeing a rise of 134% in demand for its helpline services. 

When they formed a study, 93% of respondents thought the introduction of calorie labelling would be negative or very negative for people with eating disorders. 

The distinction between the two becomes clear. There are options on how to encourage and live a healthy lifestyle, there is no option for people with eating disorders. There is only fear, shame and stress. There are only limitations on sociability and recovery. 

A study published in the International Journal of eating disorders found that when making hypothetical food choices from a menu that includes a calorie count people with anorexia and bulimia were more likely to order food with significantly fewer calories meanwhile people with binge eating disorder (an illness where people experience a loss of control and eat large amounts of food in a short span of time) were more likely to order food with significantly more calories.

The reason I want to use official studies and stats when broaching this argument is because there tends to be a general level of ignorance about how eating disorders work and impact people. Putting aside the idea that eating disorders have ‘a look’ or physical description people tend not to understand the day to day struggle even when recovering. 

I am personally three years into my recovery with fluctuating success. When other external factors in my life go wrong or become more stressful I immediately want to revert to the comfort of tracking what I eat, lose weight or just obsess over food. It was familiar and when other things were stressful my brain could tell me ‘well done you didn’t eat much today’. It doesn’t ever switch off, you just have to learn to value yourself more than the amount you ate, which is hard especially with the prospect of calories in your face at restaurants too now. 

I remember walking into a Greggs with a friend, a place which does have it’s calories on its food and drinks items without it being required. While she was ordering her coffee I was having an internal battle to choose between having the mocha that I wanted or the latte which had distinctly less calories. We just so happened to get onto the topic of calories on menus and I mentioned how I felt in Greggs, my friend was surprised. 

 It hadn’t even crossed her mind but raced through mine. 

This isn’t ignorance, this is just the reality of a person’s life not obsessed by calories, how people perceive you eating and how you value yourself depending on your weight and the calories you intake. If you haven’t experienced it you can’t judge how much or little this will impact anyone in any stage of an eating disorder. 

Calories on menus will not fix the obesity crisis in the UK, it goes a lot more deep rooted than what you eat when you eat out. However it will seriously impact every person in recovery and this isn’t even considering how it might increase the amount of people developing an eating disorder. Putting these ideas into the minds of young people and children especially will have detrimental effects on how they view and value food.

I understand the problem, the obesity epidemic is incredibly concerning across the UK and costing the NHS millions every year. I want there to be a focus on helping people be healthy and lose weight if needed but this isn’t the way to do it. 

If the only way the government can think to help the obesity crisis is to create a culture of guilt and shame when eating out normally on an exciting or special occasion and impact the lives of over 1 million people then I think they should go back to the drawing room.

Featured image – Canva

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Film, Media and Journalism student who writes about things that catch her interest. Instagram @charlsutcliffe

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