Introducing calorie counts on menus could fuel eating disorders

Calorie labelling on menus aimed at tackling obesity is not only dangerous to those with eating disorders, but it also won't make anyone healthier.

Introducing calorie counts on menus could fuel eating disorders
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Soon the UK will be making calorie counts on menu items a mandatory practice, in what can only be described as the government’s equivalent to “we have food at home.” But, this move made to tackle obesity could cause damage to those living with eating disorders and generate many more to develop obsessive eating habits.

Bill against obesity could cause more harm than good

During the Queen’s Speech on the 11th of May, Queen Elizabeth II provided an outline of all the bills that would be introduced in the UK over the year. One of these bills, aimed at targeting obesity, demanded calorie counts be displayed alongside menu items.

The proposed restrictions claim that restaurants with more than 250 employees must display the calorie counts of each dish alongside their listing on the menu. The Queen announced:

The government will introduce secondary legislation to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 or more employees to calorie label the food they sell.

But what positive effect could this bill possibly have? If anything, it will just create a wave of guilt amongst those already struggling with body image issues and eating disorders.

Eating disorder charity Beat claims the new bill could risk the health of 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder. The charity has also started a petition against the bill, warning:

Evidence shows that calorie labelling on menus risks exacerbating all eating disorders. However, there is limited evidence supporting the idea that calorie counts on menus will lead to a reduction in calories purchased by the general population.

Tom Quinn of Beat further revealed to the BBC that: ‘Research has found that when making hypothetical food choices from a menu that includes a calorie count, individuals with anorexia and bulimia are more likely to order food with significantly fewer calories, whereas people with binge eating disorder are more likely to order food with significantly more calories, exacerbating harmful eating disorder behaviours.’

He continued:

In addition, there is very limited, low-quality evidence supporting the idea that calorie counts on menus will lead to a reduction in calories purchased by the general population.

Calories aren’t an accurate depiction of nutritional value

Speaking about the new bill, Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill, said:

Our aim is to make it as easy as possible for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families, both in restaurants and at home. That is why we want to make sure everyone has access to accurate information about the food and drink we order.

While wanting to promote healthier choices may be born out of good intention, calories aren’t an accurate representation of what constitutes a "good or bad food." A bag of pretzel M&M’s has roughly the same caloric content as an avocado; that doesn’t mean they’re equally good choices.

Mitesh Desai, CEO and nutritionist at LandysChemist, revealed that ‘calories aren't strictly the only thing causing obesity in the UK.’

Adding calorie counts to menus is not strictly likely to improve the diet for the majority of people. This same idea was implemented in New York and empirical data suggests it hasn't had much of an impact. I believe that this is down to the fact that calories without context mean very little. If a meal contains 500 calories that alone doesn't mean it's good or bad for you necessarily.

Desai continued to reveal that ‘Alcohol, Refined Sugar Products (e.g. Sweets and cakes) and saturated fats (commonly found in fried foods) are all equally problematic.’

Instead, Desai believes that taking a ‘traffic light’ approach to labelling could result in better nutritional decisions:

Personally, I think the traffic light system printed on food in supermarkets has helped people to understand in a simple way how bad an item might be for them. Adapting something similar for menus would be a far more effective way to help people make conscious choices about what they eat which might lead to improved dietary outcomes.

Poor health is not the same thing as obesity

What’s more, is the new bill further pushes the narrative that weight is the sole indication of a person’s health and that tackling obesity would be the cure-all for diabetes and heart conditions. But, making the population thinner won’t quash these health issues.

A 2016 study revealed the likelihood of diabetes is much more dependant on physical activity than on weight. The study found that unfit skinny people were up to twice as likely to develop diabetes than active fat people.

Another study from 2012 also found that those considered 'obese' but were metabolically healthy and fit had no greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease or cancer than people considered to be 'normal weight.'

If leaders really wanted to focus on the health of their residents, they should aim to tackle poverty, access to healthy food, access to mental health services and provide education around nutrition and exercise, instead of blaming those it has failed.

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