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15th May 2022

What’s on the menu this week? Calories

Adding calories to menus is more likely to exacerbate disordered eating rather than solve the UK obesity crisis
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What’s on the menu this week? Calories
Photo: Priscilla Du Preez @ Unsplash

Words by Eleanor Taylor 

Trigger/content warning: eating disorders, calorie counting 

Going out for dinner should be a fun experience. An opportunity to try new cuisines, spend time with friends and family, or celebrate special occasions. But for many of those who have suffered with any form of disordered eating, it can be a daunting experience filled with fear, guilt and anxiety – feelings which may be intensified by the recent introduction of calories on menus. 

As of the beginning of April, all restaurants, cafés and takeaways with over 250 employees are legally required to display calorie information on their menus. This policy has been in discussion for years and is part of a wider strategy to tackle obesity in the UK, including bans on TV and online adverts for ‘unhealthy’ food before 9pm, and bans on food high in fat, sugar and salt being prominently displayed on supermarket shelves.  

The government argues that the pandemic highlighted the impact that obesity can have on people’s health.  It presents the new policy as an attempt to tackle the fact that two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese, which costs the NHS an estimated £6.1 billion each year. Sounds legit right?  

Except its strategy is a series of arguably paternalistic and harmful policies.  

Jo Churchill, the UK Public Health Minister, has said that the calorie information will “make it as easy as possible for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families… [and] make sure everyone has access to accurate information about the food and drink we order”. For those who do want to count their calories to help them maintain a healthy weight, I can understand how this information might be useful. This would justify the policy… if this information wasn’t already easily accessible online, or in restaurants upon request.   

For the majority of the population, an introduction of calories on menus without increased education surrounding diet, nutrition and the benefits of exercise will do little to curb the UK’s obesity problem. This is especially true given that the recommended daily amount is a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with little regard to height, weight, exercise levels, body composition, gender, race and so many other factors that influence the number of calories that someone should eat. Yet this is rarely discussed in policies surrounding obesity. For many, the calorie information will be some numbers on a piece of paper, and who’s to say that they will actually inform people’s decision-making in restaurants?  

At the end of the day, a load of numbers on a piece of paper means nothing, right?  

Wrong.  

For me, and for so many others who have struggled with eating disorders, disordered eating or an obsession with calorie counting, calories on menus means a lot more than just a load of numbers on a piece of paper. It can be extremely triggering, no matter what stage of your illness or recovery you are at. It can make you feel uncomfortable, guilty or anxious. And it can make eating out – something that should be an enjoyable experience – incredibly difficult.  

I spoke with Gemma, a University of Manchester student who shared her own experiences with calories on menus and the effect that the policy may have on people with eating disorders. She described the way in which calories on menus encouraged people to reduce their self-worth to a number, feeding the obsession with calories or a number on a scale that people with eating disorders often experience.  

Gemma also recounted researching places to go for afternoon tea to celebrate completing her degree and being met with calorie information. She said that she felt unable to celebrate occasions without an overwhelming sense of guilt and pointed out that regardless of whether you struggle with an eating disorder, calorie information on menus can take the enjoyment away from eating out.  

She expressed an annoyance surrounding the stereotype that “people with eating disorders aren’t going to go to restaurants anyway” and therefore wouldn’t be affected by the policy. She said that she “loves food” and that she used eating out as a way to challenge her eating disorder, aiding her recovery.

Calorie information on menus encouraged her to choose food based on its calorific content rather than what she genuinely wanted to eat. In this way, calories on menus deprive eating disorder sufferers of the opportunity to enjoy eating, or to escape their eating disorder – the numbers reinforce feelings of guilt and control surrounding food.  

This stereotype is paired with ignorance and a lack of empathy towards eating disorder sufferers and their food anxieties. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, and yet people know surprisingly little about them, their symptoms, their causes and how debilitating they can be for sufferers.  

Perhaps this ignorance stems from the systemic fatphobia within our society that uses weight as a proxy for ill-health, with ‘fat, unfit and unhealthy’ and ‘thin, fit and healthy’ as the only two, mutually exclusive possibilities. Government policies perpetuate a fatphobic narrative through their portrayal of fat people as a burden to the NHS, as moral failings and as irresponsible for not wanting to lose weight.

Eating disorder charities such as BEAT have expressed their concerns regarding calories on menus and eating disorders.  Yet perhaps because we live in a society that glamorises thinness and stigmatises fatness, these concerns were overlooked in favour of a push towards weight loss. 

Additionally, the paternalistic policies aimed at limiting people’s exposure to ‘unhealthy’ foods through bans on advertising suggest that people cannot make their own rational decisions about what to eat.  If this is the case, why approach it through simply making ‘unhealthy’ food less visible in shops?  Why not educate people, and allow them to make their own informed decisions?

Furthermore, by focusing on foods with high fat, salt, sugar and calorie content as the means to achieve a ‘healthier’ nation, government policy fails to recognise the other factors that shape people’s body size and health.  Most notably, social factors like the cost-of-living crisis make healthier, more balanced diets increasingly inaccessible to those on lower incomes. The solution to obesity in the UK might not be a shift towards paternalism, but instead a shift away from austerity. 

But, if calories are a permanent addition to menus, there are ways to make eating out a more pleasurable experience for those affected by this change. For example, a trusted friend or family member could read the menu to you, omitting the calorie information. Or, some restaurants are offering alternative menus upon request that don’t contain the calorie information.

And if either of these aren’t suitable, remember that smaller, independent restaurants and cafés are not included in this policy and thus are not required to include calorie information on their menus.  

If you do struggle with any of the themes mentioned in this article, you can find help here:  

BEAT Eating Disorder Support 

Helpline: 0808 801 0677 

Email: [email protected] 

NHS Eating Disorder Page


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