From April 6th, restaurants that employ over 250 staff members will be required, by law, to place calorie values next to each menu item. The government’s aim is to reduce obesity levels within British society, yet they appear to be ignoring the dangers that this change will bring in equal measure. Instead of improving our society’s health, there is evidence to suggest that the practice of calorie counting is unhealthy, unhelpful, and downright inaccurate. While it might have short-term benefits for those looking to stay away from fats and carbs, the long-term detriments to those with or recovering from eating disorders are monumental.
But how to balance the advantages and the disadvantages? How to help both groups of people? It will be impossible to measure whether menus with calories encourage informed eating decisions or not. Indeed, there will be some who are grateful for this new law and some who are not. But the lack of a definitive outcome is no good reason to simply ‘trial’ this health experiment when the stakes are so high.
Unfortunately, studies on these two opposing health problems are shockingly limited. Like so many mental health fields, eating disorders are an incredibly under-researched and under-funded area of medicine. However, from what can be found online, eating disorders affect approximately 3.4m Britons, while 18m Britons are obese.
Yet calories are an imprecise measurement of health, an incredibly reductive way of accounting for nutrition, hunger, and quantity. It ignores the value of individual food items, especially their protein and sugar count. More importantly, calories have come to represent the unhealthy diet culture whereby adults are encouraged to restrict themselves to the daily amount of calories for a toddler, all to lose weight.
Furthermore, encouraging health through feelings of guilt is not necessarily a sustainable approach. After all, the information surrounding calories has always been available for those who desire it. This new bill simply forces the information on those who are not always willing to read it.
There are politicians who disregard the negative effects of calories on menus by claiming that people with eating disorders do not visit restaurants or that people with eating disorders know all the calories of food items anyway. While this may be true to a certain extent, surely it is not worth perpetuating unhealthy habits further? Furthermore, why make it near impossible for those recovering from eating disorders to develop healthier eating habits?
What the UK needs is better research and funding into underdeveloped areas of the NHS, not bills that create as many problems as they solve. With the body positive movement finally gaining traction in the news and on social media, the last thing we need is something to further add shame to the act of eating.