Calorie counting on menus: a problematic policy

CW: mention of eating disorders, calorie counting.

The UK government have this week confirmed their plans to make it mandatory for restaurants with over 250 employees to display the number of calories in each meal on their menus. This is a bid to curb obesity crisis as the government estimates almost two-thirds of English adults to be overweight. Nonetheless, calorie-counting is a flawed mechanism of communicating nutritional value which diminishes the effect of this policy, instead burdening restaurants with an additional cost whilst recovering from a year where they may not even have been operating, and increasing the pressure of dining out for those who struggle with eating disorders.  

The aim of this policy is to encourage individual accountability for the things that we eat. On a purely awareness basis, this policy may contribute to an improved recognition of exactly how many calories some foods may contain, potentially deterring the more health-conscious away from high-calorie options. Many UK restaurants already participate in this practice, such as JD Wetherspoons, and in the US this is commonplace. The ease of a numerical indicator may also make consumption decisions easier for those who struggle to understand what may be in their food, for example children or those who may not cook for themselves.

Despite this, there are more reasons on economic, social and political frontiers that make this policy backward, upsetting and potentially damaging to health anyway. Firstly, the administrative cost of implementing the scheme is yet another burden for restaurant owners. Although online menus take little time to edit, reprinting all menus across a chain with over 250 employees requires thousands of pounds. Although this policy will not come into full effect until April 2022, the hospitality sector is one without cash to spare at the moment, with the full reopening of restaurants after a year of intermittent service only being achieved two weeks ago. The timing of this policy alongside the global pandemic cannot be much worse: although the government may protest that tackling the obesity crisis now can prevent more severe coronavirus illness as well as obesity-related illnesses, to have calorie counting thrust upon a nation who haven’t experienced restaurant dining in over a year seems unsympathetic, especially as this could deter some customers from eating out at all.

This policy seems even more unnecessary when we assess the true impact of calorie counting. A study from Harvard University in 2018 found inconsistent effects when calorie figures were displayed: only 9% of people picked healthier meals with lower calorie content as a direct result of the calorie information displayed. The study did concede that having to display caloric information may shame larger franchises into changing their recipes: they found 66% of the largest US restaurant chains introduced items with up to 20% fewer calories. Nonetheless, the limitations of calorie counting make the number obsolete when considering the wider effects.

For example, the number of calories in a meal or beverage is not actually indicative of its nutritional value. High-calorie foods like carbohydrates are known for slow-release energy and are a necessary staple in a well-balanced diet. Similarly, the calorie content we see displayed on all foodstuffs we purchase are themselves inaccurate as they are based on a number of assumptions and averages, and do not consider different metabolic rates and other complexities involved in digestion. The quality of our food should be prioritised, not how much energy it may provide.

A key issue that may arise from displaying such information is the way in which excessive calorie-counting can encourage disordered eating patterns. Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, say “evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.” By enforcing this display of information, those who already find eating out a challenging process may be further deterred from the restaurant experience, as displaying calorie information encourages excessive control of a person’s diet ,down to a precise figure of what a person should consume. There is a real obesity crisis in the UK, however there is also a mental health crisis that should not be worsened by potentially ineffective government policy.

Tracking calories, although simplistic and promoting transparency, is a reductive approach to the obesity emergency in the UK, and is harmful to those sensitive to such information. Systems like traffic-light food labelling have been found to be more effective in promoting healthy decision-making as the calorie content is not prioritised over the nutritional value of the product. To simply communicate all necessary information about a food or drink in a single number is close-minded and circumvents real action to improve our diets, whilst increasing financial and social costs for the restaurant and the customer, respectively.

Photo credit: Daniel Bradley via Unsplash