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Counting calories doesn’t work. The government is wrong to force us to do so

As eating disorders rise, a new law requiring calorie counts on menus in England hugely misses the mark – and could have dangerous consequences

Indra Warnes
6 April 2022, 3.50pm

Wetherspoons pubs have displayed calorie counts on their menus since 2012

Stephen Hyde / Alamy Stock Photo

For several years, I used calories as a yardstick by which I could measure the success of my day. I didn’t know what a calorie actually was, or how one was calculated, but that didn’t matter. Low calories, good day; high calories, bad.

Calories, ironically, consumed me. Food shopping became a long, drawn-out affair – slowly making my way along each aisle comparing labels on the bottom of packets.

Mine is not a unique story. Last year, NHS Digital reported that more than half of England’s older teenagers (58%) could have an eating disorder, up from 45% in 2017. The study found that among girls aged 17 to 19 the problem is even more acute, with 76.4% meeting criteria that would prompt investigations for eating disorders, compared to 60.5% four years earlier.

Wherever you look, the stats are grim. Some 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. I was lucky, I fought mine. Many are less fortunate. In January 2020, NHS Digital data reported hospital admissions for eating disorders had increased by more than a third across all age groups over the previous two years. Among children in England, cases have grown so quickly that the NHS can no longer treat every child with an eating disorder.

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You have to wonder whether the government considered any of this when introducing a new law that, from today, requires large restaurants, cafes and takeaways in England to print on their menus the calories of every dish and soft drink.

It's a move that has sparked fierce criticism across the board – and with good reason.

As Andrew Radford, the chief executive of Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, said: “Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.”

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Others have pointed out that simply demonising calories is not particularly helpful.

“Our national obsession with calories isn’t healthy,” tweeted Masterchef: The Professionals winner Sven-Hanson Britt, who opened his first restaurant last year. “It’s a form of measuring energy, sure, but how much should you actually be consuming as an individual? Are you just going off the old adage of 2,000 [calories] for women and 2,500 for men? Cos all women and all men are the same, of course.”

A calorie is a measure of energy, but a simplistic one. It fails to take into account protein, carbohydrates, fats or any of the micronutrients our bodies need. Simply counting the calories you eat is pointless: we all know 500 calories’ worth of chocolate won’t have the same nutritional value as 500 calories’ worth of vegetables, even if the numbers are the same on paper.

Reframing the debate

So why introduce a law that will cost restaurants thousands and cause suffering for many? The government says it’s part of a new strategy to 'tackle obesity' – but there are at least two clear problems with this.

The first is that it’s unlikely to work. Similar calorie-labelling measures began coming into play in the US from 2008 onwards and were made mandatory in all states in 2018. Meanwhile, obesity in the country continues to rise.

The second, arguably more important issue, is that we need to reframe the whole debate on ‘obesity’. The government’s intention to force restaurants to print calories on menus was first announced in July 2020, as part of its “Tackling Obesity” strategy.

At the time, doctors from the Institute of Health Promotion and Education responded with a letter to the British Medical Journal that said: “A major issue we have with the [government’s] new strategy is that overall, it has the wrong approach. A positive one would be far more likely to create healthy individuals…

“The goal should not be anti-obesity and using shock tactics, but one that promotes a healthy relationship towards food and bodies.”

In the UK, obesity is measured based on a person’s body mass index (BMI). But this is a flawed, 200-year-old scale – it doesn’t consider proportions of bone, muscle or fat and tells us almost nothing about a person’s health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given BMI was created by a white man, who did the majority of his research on other white men, it’s also discriminatory: in the US, which also uses BMI to measure obesity, Black women are far more likely to be classed as ‘obese’ than other ethnic and gender groups.

Rather than perpetuating harmful stigmas surrounding body weight, the government should look to promote healthy lifestyles. While ministers extol the values of calorie counting, physical education, more than any other subject, is being cut from the curriculums of Britain’s secondary schools, with 51,600 hours lost between 2010 and 2017.

Adults in most deprived regions are twice as likely to be considered obese than those in least deprived areas

Meanwhile, the fact that one of the government’s other measures to tackle obesity – a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals for unhealthy foods – has been delayed due to the cost of living crisis speaks volumes.

“A focus on tackling poverty is needed,” continues the letter from the Institute of Health Promotion and Education. “People with little money often buy food that is filling, cheap, and high in salt, sugar and fat.”

The letter also highlights that many people across England lack cooking skills. Now, nearly two years on, many also increasingly lack the means to cook, with foodbanks reporting people turning down meals because they can’t afford the fuel to make them.

It is not by chance that adults in England’s most deprived regions are almost twice as likely to be considered obese than those in the least deprived areas. As food and energy costs rise, forcing restaurants to list calorie counts on menus is little more than a cruel gimmick.

If the government is serious about promoting healthier lifestyles, it should start by alleviating poverty and ensuring access to healthy foods is a right, not a privilege.

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