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David Rose smiling in front of a view over London's skyline

BY Leo Hynett

Healthcare

Calories on Menus: Help or Hindrance?

Major restaurant chains are now including calories next to everything on their menus in an effort to encourage healthier choices. However, for people struggling with eating disorders, this move could make their health worse.

APRIL 13  2022

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Calories have been listed on pre-packaged foods for some time, but their presence on restaurant menus is a relatively new phenomenon. The pub chain Wetherspoons has listed calories on its menus since 2012, but it was relatively uncommon at the time. Now, calories can be seen all over boards at Burger King or on menus of large sit-down restaurants.

As part of a new government plan to tackle obesity, restaurants, cafes and takeaways that have more than 250 staff must now declare how many calories are in their freshly cooked meals. This will present some practical challenges for staff – measuring extremely precise quantities of ingredients will likely slow things down in the kitchen, increasing costs that may have to be passed on to the consumer. On top of the potential practical challenges, calorie counting can lead to an unhealthy emotional relationship with food.

 

Encouraging healthy habits

The overall goal of this new scheme is to reduce obesity in the UK population, but calories are only a very small part of the weight loss picture.

Counting calories is often used in weight loss programmes that focus on the idea that a calorie deficit is required to lose weight. The idea behind this is that if the calories burned in a day outnumber the calories consumed the body will use stored fat for energy. Figuring out these numbers for yourself is a complex process as every body is different – things like age, sex, height, starting weight, metabolism, physical composition, and activity level all impact how many calories you need and how many you burn at rest each day.

Improved education on healthy eating in schools and better information for adults on how to sensibly – and sustainably – improve their diets will likely have a much greater impact on obesity in the UK than the simple act of listing calories.

Some of the UK’s largest chains have commented that they feel the new calorie counts are ‘unlikely to have any impact’ on obesity, and a director of Obesity UK feels it is ‘unclear who the new rules would help’.

 

Creating unhealthy thinking

Eating meals out can often be a very triggering experience for people with eating disorders. The addition of overt calorie counters next to each menu item – from 6 calorie black coffee to 2,000 calorie pizza – will likely make this worse.

Many people found themselves having to confront their relationship with their body over lockdown. No longer able to spend days in the gym, moving to a more sedentary work from home lifestyle, and perhaps turning to comfort eating with greater frequency, many of us saw our bodies change. ‘The pandemic should have led to an understanding of how stress affects our eating’, but some people seem to be approaching dieting with renewed vigour in an attempt to lose their lockdown weight.

We spoke with Sarah (not her real name) about how she feels the new menu changes will affect her. Sarah struggled with anorexia throughout her teens and is now in her mid-twenties. She has been at a steady healthy weight for nearly 3 years but feels this new change could bring up some old feelings:

‘I spent years getting to a point where I can enjoy a meal without thinking about the calories in it, this will make eating out difficult all over again.’

Like many people with eating disorders, Sarah hyper focused on the calories in the food she was eating, often leading her to make incredibly unhealthy choices simply due to the calorie count as opposed to the nutritional content:

‘I wouldn’t use my calories on healthy food, I’d save them and waste them on junk. I lived off sugar-free energy drinks because they had no calories in them. Calorie counting isn’t how to build a healthy relationship with food, it’s the way to ruin that relationship for good.’

Some people find calorie counting to be helpful, but the possible negative impacts of listing these figures on menus are undeniable. With many hospitality venues still using the table service apps they adopted during the pandemic, a possible solution could be to list calorie counts on the app in such a way that the user has to click to reveal them. This way, people who wished to see these figures could but it would not be a visible potential trigger for people with eating disorders.

As highlighted in Sarah’s story, compulsory calorie listings on menus could also make people focus on the wrong elements of what they’re eating – the nutritional value of a food is far more important than the units of energy it contains.

Masterchef winner Sven-Hanson Britt warned that:

‘Kids will grow up in restaurants, hotels and cafes only looking at that little number below a dish. Choices will be made based on a number alone. The love of flavour, ingredients, history, cooking craft or nutrition will be lost and masked by a newly perceived focus.’

Creating a healthy relationship with food is an integral part of reducing obesity in the UK, and compulsory calorie counts are perhaps not the way to foster that healthy relationship.

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