Do calorie-labelled menus show a disregard for mental health in the UK?

C/W: This article discusses themes of disordered eating which some readers may find distressing.

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Wednesday 6th April 2022 saw the introduction of a new government policy which means large restaurants and cafes (those with over 250 staff) must print the calorie content of meals on their menus. At first glance, this enforcement might seem sensible, aiming to help us make healthy decisions and providing a tool to tackle the obesity problem. However, many hold it simply serves to magnify the pervasive, worsening issues that come with living in our modern society; a society with a distinct obsession with calories, self-image, and guilt, all of which are known to contribute to the rising figures in eating disorders and deterioration of mental health.

Many are mystified by the new regulation, arguing it will be both ineffective in tacking obesity whilst damaging for those struggling with disordered eating. The Government, despite claims that they have consulted “extensively” with mental health experts, have shown irresponsibility and neglect towards vulnerable members of our society. Whether they are ignorant to the consequences the policy will have, or their actions stem from a place of persistent focus on the obesity problem alone, the Government have, in their attempt to solve one health epidemic, shown indifference to the fact it will exacerbate another.

BEAT, the leading UK charity for eating disorders, has confirmed that the rule’s introduction could have negative effects on those with eating disorders, with Tom Quinn (their director of external affairs) saying it could “increase a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge eating disorder.” With BEAT’s belief that approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, this cannot be dismissed simply as a minor, unfortunate, outcome of the Governments’ good intentions.

To be bombarded by numbers all over menus is something very different

Comparisons have been made between the issue at hand and the existent calorie-labelling within supermarkets, something we don’t seem to take any issue with. You may be thinking, what’s the fuss about restaurants and cafes if we are all perfectly happy with mandatory labelling elsewhere? Fundamentally, those presenting this counter argument are likely to have never experienced disordered eating.

Those who have struggled with food in the past will be able to relate to the torment and immense anxiety that comes with a simple outing to the supermarket. With calories everywhere, a shopping trip can induce an acute sense of panic. Amidst the aisles, you can find yourself paralysed by thought, entirely incapable of choosing between two almost identical items, knowing that you would enjoy one more, yet finding yourself considering the other solely due to its lower calorific value.

So, the supermarket is not an easy feat for many and calorie labelling certainly does not go unnoticed without causing distress. However, there is a general understanding of its necessity in supermarkets and measures such as avoiding looking at the back of packets (that is, when the numbers aren’t plastered all over the packaging) can be taken. But to be bombarded by numbers all over menus is something very different. By making calories entirely unavoidable in restaurant settings, a new level of anxiety is imposed upon someone with an eating disorder in yet another sphere of their life. 

The use of calories as a ‘healthiness’ measurement is simply wrong

Whilst speaking with someone who has struggled with anorexia, they expressed concerns that the policy will not only be harmful to those struggling with eating disorders but will encourage them. They stated that “the culture orientation of our society is worsened by social media alone, but state-enforced guidelines such as this one only reinforces the detrimental messages being sent to young people surrounding their health and image”. They went on to explain they would personally struggle with the new rule, saying that for them, eating out is something they have worked hard to rewire in their brain, to view as a social experience, “that means focusing on who I am with, enjoying what I am eating and seeing the food itself as nothing more than fuel.”. Having nearly lost their life to an eating disorder, they explained that they are now more able to look beyond calories, reminding themselves of how unwell were in the past. However, they feared that young, impressionable people will sadly be “unable to detach themselves from food in the same way.” 

Putting aside the more severe impact it will have on some, there is an additional, wider-reaching issue to discuss. That is, the introduction of calorie-counting in restaurants sends a clear, exceedingly strong message: the consumption of fewer calories results in higher levels of health. As is the view of many nutrition experts, the use of calories as a ‘healthiness’ measurement is simply wrong.

Again, I spoke to the individual who struggled with anorexia about whether the policy could be effective in any manner, to which they responded that “the most fundamental error the Government is making, is ignoring the fact that obesity itself is an eating disorder, one driven by issues far greater than calorie content.” They went on to urge the Government to provide support to encourage healthy relationships with food and exercise and to look beyond the limits of numerical values. 

This new policy represents the significant worsening of our societal attitude towards health

Mark Selby, co-founder of the restaurant chain Wahaca, told the BBC that the calorie-focused initiative signifies a disregard for important fundamentals of food, “be it nutrition, fibre, all those things — which potentially we feel might be more relevant or certainly need to be considered”. Some might want to know more about what they are eating, but a meal’s calorie content does not begin to provide a complete picture. Whilst attempting to ensure “everyone has access to accurate information” (Jo Churchill, Public Health Minister) about the food we eat is an admirable goal, the approach being taken, with its explicit focus on calories, not only oversimplifies health but shifts its focus to the wrong area. This new policy represents the significant worsening of our societal attitude towards health, a view hijacked and skewed by modern advertising and social media, targeting us from all angles with the message that we aren’t good enough. 

To underline just how counterintuitive the government’s approach has been, consider the comparison of a healthy, balanced meal and a chocolate bar. The meal, for argument’s sake, contains carbohydrates, protein, fats, and fibre, as well as variety in vitamins and minerals. In contrast, a chocolate bar is usually heavily processed, high in sugar and lacking in general nutrition, yet is likely to be less calorie-dense than the meal. Following the logic applied to justify the introduction of this government regulation, the chocolate bar is the healthier option. When put like this, it is hard to argue that the message ‘calories dictate health’ is unproblematic.  

Personally, I find it not only disappointing, but deeply discouraging that the implementation of this policy has gone ahead. Despite the abundance of facts and figures pointing towards a dire mental health situation, as well as the compounding effect of the coronavirus pandemic, this initiative shows that still, mental health continues to fall low on the Government’s list of priorities. As has been shown, mental and physical health are inextricably linked, thus posing an obvious question: why does the UK Government believe that an intervention likely to affect mental health so negatively will somehow deliver positive results for physical health? 

Image: Foo Visuals via Unsplash

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