The dangerous reality of calorie labelled menus

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Content warning: this article discusses eating disorders which some readers may find upsetting.

On 11th May it was announced in the Queen’s Speech that mandatory calorie labelling on menus will be introduced as part of the government’s strategy to tackle obesity. The legislation will be enacted in April 2022 and will require businesses with over 250 employees to display calorie information on their food menus. The rationale is that displaying information regarding the calorie content of a meal will encourage people to make more informed and healthier choices, thus reducing obesity levels and improving public health. This proposal was first unveiled in July 2020 and stimulated much controversy, particularly amongst eating disorder campaigners and mental health experts, with the eating disorder charity BEAT condemning the policy as potentially disastrous for those living with an eating disorder. 

To some this new policy may appear harmless – a well-intentioned strategy to ensure that people are aware of the nutritional content of the food they are consuming. But there is a dangerous reality behind this policy under the guise of improving public health. For the 1.25 million people in the U.K. suffering from an eating disorder, this new legislation has the potential to be extremely damaging. Obsessively counting calories often plays a prominent role in eating disorders and can become all-consuming, to the point where the joy of food is entirely supplanted by constant anxiety over the nutritional content. Therefore, eating out at a restaurant where they have had no control over the preparation of the food is often an important milestone in the path to recovery.

For the 1.25 million people in the U.K. suffering from an eating disorder, this new legislation has the potential to be extremely damaging

Breaking away from disordered habits in the process of eating disorder recovery is difficult enough in a society engulfed by culture, and this proposal will only make it more challenging through the reinforcement of calorie counting behaviours. In addition, research has also shown that 25% of people who begin calorie counting will subsequently develop an eating disorder. By forcing restaurants to display calorie information, the government are directly putting the health of people affected by eating disorders at risk, as well as increasing the risk that more people will develop eating disorders in the process.

Furthermore, these issues are even more pronounced given the current circumstances. There has been a significant rise in mental illnesses during the pandemic, with BEAT witnessing a 300% increase in demands for their services in the past 14 months. The disruptions to routine, lack of social interaction and perpetual uncertainty about the future forms the perfect breeding ground for eating disorders, which often stem from a desire to maintain control and manage difficult emotions when life feels inherently out of control. A recent investigation by The Guardian highlighted that urgent referrals for children with eating disorders had doubled during the pandemic. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, 1 in 5 anorexia sufferers dying as a result of their illness. This highlights just how misplaced this legislation is, given the ever-increasing strain on eating disorder services and the lack of funding in the mental health sector. 

Focusing primarily on calorie counting is a largely ineffective and detrimental strategy to affect change

Beyond the negative implications this initiative may have on eating disorder sufferers and those attempting to recover from an eating disorder, there is very little evidence to suggest that it would significantly modify the calorie consumption of the general population. In New York City calorie labelling has been enforced in restaurants since 2008, but studies have found that this has not reduced obesity levels. Furthermore, the use of calorie labels is associated with a greater likelihood of engaging in unhealthy weight-control behaviours, rather than behaviours focused on improving overall health.

Therefore, this legislation will not achieve its supposed aim of improving public health, but will instead fuel eating disorder behaviours and encourage a disordered relationship around food. It is undeniable that there is an obesity problem in the U.K., but there is a myriad of other strategies that could be employed to tackle this problem, such as plans to implement education around nutrition and improving access to fresh produce, as well as a focus on mental health awareness and body acceptance. Focusing primarily on calorie counting is a largely ineffective and detrimental strategy to affect change.

Displaying calories on menus is an oversimplified solution to a complex issue, and fuels the harmful narrative that food is always something to be quantified and earned rather than enjoyed. The government’s refusal to acknowledge the concerns of eating disorder specialists and their commitment to continue with this policy, despite evidence proving it is ineffective and dangerous, is extremely disappointing. It is essential that public health campaigns should adopt a holistic approach, encompassing both physical and mental elements of health to be truly effective and avoid putting vulnerable individuals at risk. Addressing the problem of obesity is important, but let us not overlook the often hidden mental health epidemic.

Image: Will Esayenko via Unsplash

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