Written by Sophie Conant
In April 2022, the British Government plan to introduce the requirement for all large businesses to display food labels and calorie counts on menus. The introduction of this regulation is part of the government’s wider plan to tackle obesity, and to “make it possible for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families” (1). Will listing calories on menus actually encourage people to make healthier choices? Are there any consequences that could occur as a result of this new regulation?
Calories don’t tell the full story
What is a healthy choice for one person, might not be the healthiest choice for another because context matters when it comes to nutrition. If a beef burger was shown to have less calories than a salad, the government’s proposed calorie hypothesis would suggest that by choosing the burger, you would be making the ‘healthier’ choice. But what if you had cardiovascular disease and you required a diet high in fibre and low in saturated fat, which the salad provided. Would the burger still be the 'healthiest' option for you?
We don't eat calories, we eat nutrients. A study investigating the equality of calories, concluded that public health efforts should stop emphasising the calories contained within foods, and instead focus on the nutrients they contain (2). Education and messaging around this is missing in the UK.
You can read more about calories in our blog Are All Calories Equal?
Estimated calories on the menu are not accurate
Although a restaurant can create a rough estimate of what the energy content of the dishes on their menu are, these values are not going to be consistently accurate. The food served in cafes and restaurants, unlike pre-packaged meals, are not prepared by machines, but by hand. The chefs that prepare the food don’t weigh and measure every aspect of each separate meal they prepare.
If two people were to order the exact same meal, the chances are that each plate would contain a different number of calories.
Labelling calories could cause more harm than good
The introduction of this regulation has also failed to consider the impact that plastering calories on menus will have on those suffering with disordered eating or eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, and whether it has the potential to increase their prevalence.
Social eating is a big part of our culture and allows people to connect with friends over good food. Putting calorie labels on menus would make what’s meant to be an enjoyable occasion a place of heightened anxiety for anyone suffering from intrusive thoughts around eating. Placing calories on menus would turn these events into increased times of distress and further isolate people suffering from eating disorders.
The eating disorder charity, Beat, have stated that “calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds” and instead encourage that the consideration of research that suggest “anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive” (3).
Will calorie labelling work?
The reasoning behind this initiative is to help lower obesity rates in the UK. There are a number of studies that have looked into this claim, and have found that for the cases of some people, it did help. However, we know that it is estimated that up to 30% of people presenting to weight management clinics have an eating disorder. Calorie labelling as a form of obesity management could reinforce the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. This black and white thinking links in with the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.
One study found that whilst the food choices of sufferers of anorexia and bulimia did decrease in overall calorie content when calories were labelled on the menu, the opposite occurred with sufferers of binge eating disorder – their overall calorie consumption increased (4). Even though the introduction of this policy aims to help people make ‘healthier’ choices, it could be suggested that it would actually have the opposite effect.
Managing restaurant anxiety
Despite the backlash that this proposed plan has received, it does appear that the Government are currently planning on going ahead with their plan to make calorie labelling on menus compulsory. Having a few techniques up your sleeve to help manage restaurant anxiety can be helpful in making eating out a less stressful experience. Here are a few ideas of the things that might be helpful.
Prepare – restaurants often have their menus available online. Perhaps try looking over the options online before going out to help reduce anxiety when at the restaurant. If you can, look over the options with a supportive friend or family member.
Try to shift your mindset - view food as fuel rather than something to be feared and know that it is absolutely possible to overcome fear foods in ED recovery. Our bodies need energy, and adequate fueling allows us to enjoy life more.
Talk to someone about your worries - if you feel comfortable, tell the person you’re eating out with about your concerns. Perhaps they can then act as the voice of calm amidst the anxiety.
Set a limit on the amount of time you can spend looking at the menu - restaurants often offer so many choices, even without the added stress of calorie labelling, it can quite often feel overwhelming when looking through the menu. Setting a time limit could help to prevent overthinking.
Set yourself a challenge – Think about what your favourite dish was when you were a child, or perhaps try something that a friend has recommended to you. Challenge yourself to it, regardless of the number of calories it claims to contain.
We don't believe that putting calories on menus is a good idea.
It takes away from the social aspect of eating, and discounts that we eat food, not calories. Even if the numbers were accurate, it fails to address the ways in which human bodies obtain nutrients from food, cooking and processing methods.
If health initiatives encouraged a more varied diet rather than labelling energy content, evidence suggests that this would be more effective and would have less of a negative impact on people who find calorie labelling triggering. The most important thing to remember is that food is much more than just a number. Food is fuel and should be enjoyed.
If you need support or help to improve your relationship with food, stop calorie counting or take the first steps towards eating disorder recovery please reach out and connect with us by completing an enquiry form.
Sophie Conant is a 2nd year Dietetics student at the University of Nottingham. Her own journey to finding food freedom has given her a passion to help others to do the same. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, climbing and cooking for friends.
 Gov.UK, 2021, Calorie labelling on Menus to be introduced in cafes, restaurants and takeaways, Available at: Calorie labelling on menus to be introduced in cafes, restaurants and takeaways - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) [Accessed 19 January 2022]
 Mozaffarian D, 2017, Foods, obesity and diabetes – are all foods created equal? Nutrition reviews Vol. 75
 Beat, 2021, Beat’s response to Government plans for calorie counts on menus, Available at: Beat's response to Government plan for calorie counts on menus - Beat (beateatingdisorders.org.uk) [Accessed 19 January 2022]
 Haynos A and Roberto C, 2017, The Effects of Restaurant Menu Calorie Labelling on Hypothetical Meal Choices of Females with Disordered Eating, The International journal of eating disorders Vol. 50.3
Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians that specialise in eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, gut health and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.
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