Boris Johnson has alerted the nation that restaurants with over 250 employees must show the calorific content of every meal one can order on their menu. Supposedly, this will aid Britain in the “fight against obesity”. But it seems that instead of helping us “crack down” on this battle, it will only help to manifest an unhealthy relationship with food and a skewed perception of health.
Let us unpack what Boris is aiming to do here. Does he really think that putting the calorie content of every dish will make someone rethink their options, with no repercussions? When one decides to eat out, they often do so with a greater intention than worrying about what they are putting into their body. Whether it is celebrating a promotion, or a catch up with friends, we eat out as a way to connect with others, bond over good food and give our high street some income. One does not want to be reminded of the amount of carbohydrates or fats they are consuming throughout the meal, but rather focus on the reason why they are going out to eat in the first place. The feeling of happiness will soon be replaced with guilt and shame, if we perhaps choose to eat something that is higher in calories, compared to the rest of the menu.
Or, why should we care? Maybe I will order the highest calorific meal on the menu. Why? Because it may look the tastiest, or it might be the exact meal I have been craving all day. Should I be made to feel guilty about that? I wonder, when the calories start to be displayed on menus, how many people will switch their order based on the calorie content. It seems that we no longer eat our food in peace.
We can no longer escape the chokehold of the societal expectation of what a healthy body should look like. From waist-trainers, to meal replacement shakes, everywhere we turn there is a new way to lose weight. Body image issues are at an all-time high, shouldn’t we promote a healthy body image and healthy food behaviours, rather than plastering numbers on menus, which hold no value at all? Eating disorders are sadly becoming more and more common, especially in adolescents. BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity have released the statement: “It is extremely disappointing that the Government have chosen to put at risk the health of people affected by eating disorders.” I certainly agree – putting calorific content on menus enables unhealthy behaviours like calorie counting and guilt after eating – and now Boris is welcoming this “victory” with open arms. Boris may be using this as a way to help our physical health, but our mental health is just as important.
Remember, this is all a part of the drive for Britain to become healthier and lose weight. This certainly needs to be broken down further. If I were to hand you a McDonalds cheeseburger, or a Pret A Manger salad bowl and ask ‘which of these is healthier’, you would most certainly choose the Pret salad. Yet, in terms of calorific content, the staple cheeseburger contains 263 calories, whilst the Tamari Chicken Salad Bowl contains 335 calories per serving. Here is where the issue lies. If we are basing ‘health’ on calories, this is simply a flawed position. By using calories as our main definition for what health is, we are forgetting the key concepts of maintaining a healthy and happy body. Instead of prioritising calories, we should aim to prioritise nutritional benefit. I am no biologist, but I feel like getting your five a day is a good start to promoting healthy eating. So, why not start promoting meals on the menu that have two of your five a day? Or meals rich in Omega 3? Health is not a number and we need to stop seeing it as one.
Now, I am not saying that there should not be an option to view the nutritional value of each meal. Take Wagamama for example. Not only do they have the nutritional information of each product on their website, but they offer ‘kokoro bowls’ – a choice of three meals which are under 650 calories. If you are watching what you eat and are counting calories as a way to maintain a diet in a healthy manner, then of course you should have access to this information. In fact, for those who have diabetes and need to calculate the amount of carbohydrates in sugars they are consuming, this is crucial. But we should have the means to find this information ourselves, rather than it to be blatantly displayed on the menu.
Sorry Boris, but defining health in a numerical way is pointless, dangerous, and harmful. It is enough to make any good dish go cold.
Illustration: Annie Tattersdill.