Recipe for Disaster: Why the Prospect of Calorie Content on Menus Fills me with Dread

As part of the government’s campaign to reduce obesity, Boris Johnson plans to include the calorie content of food and drinks on restaurant menus. For me, and undoubtedly many others, this seems like an alarming threat to public wellbeing. 

Trigger Warning: discussion around disordered eating, body image issues and harmful diet culture.

Disclaimer: Issues around eating are complex and my experience does not reflect all.

In my late teenage years, I was fixated on calories. My days at Sixth Form consisted of excessive notetaking and planning around how many calories I would consume and, if I had eaten lunch, how many I would subsequently burn at the gym. Ignoring their flavours and health benefits, foods were reduced to mere digits in my mind as I navigated an excessive and unhealthy bid to lose weight. 

Meals out at restaurants were particularly challenging as I would obsessively flit between what I actually wanted to eat and what I believed fitted with my reduced calorie intake, always settling on the latter. This decision was made easier by the availability of the menu’s calorie information online, which allowed me to maintain my rigid and unhealthy routine. Where available, I would research the nutritional information of menus beforehand, working out which options felt ‘safe’, and whether they would leave room for drinks, a starter or a dessert. Using this information, I would pre-plan my meals, almost always opting for an undressed salad and avoiding anything from pasta and pizza to rich sauces. This information therefore helped to solidify a flawed perception of food and eating. It also allowed my unreasonable desire to diet to come to fruition, despite being seventeen years old, emotionally unstable and already underweight. I refrained from eating foods I loved due to the dreaded number that accompanied them. With calories always on my mind, the joy of eating out became an incredibly complex, unpleasant and guilt-laden experience.

This extreme meal-planning ahead of restaurant visits is fortunately a thing of the past: after years of anti-depressants and therapy, as well as a huge dose of will power, I now eat intuitively. I choose my meals based on what I crave and how hungry I feel; I do my best to not perceive rich foods in a harmful way. However, the prospect of having calorie information forced in front of me as I browse through a menu poses a new threat to this progress.

For those suffering with unhealthy or disordered eating habits, the government’s plan is dangerous, wrongly reinforcing the centrality of calories and impeding the option of eating intuitively. This concern has been echoed by eating disorder charities such as Beat. Beat’s Chief Executive has previously emphasised the distress and harm that can be caused by calorie labels, arguing that the government’s approach is ‘counter-productive’. Indeed, by reducing a meal to its calorie content, the government will discourage people from eating what they want, in turn reinforcing unhealthy physical or psychological habits. For even the most emotionally-stable diners, calorie information risks introducing a negative and short-sighted way of thinking about food and health, based on numbers rather than the complexity of individual needs. This proposal is in particularly bad taste after months of nationwide lockdown, which seemed to foster widespread anxiety around weight gain.

Including calorie counts also seeks to demonise foods, sharpening the divide between those deemed good (low-calorie) and bad (calorific). Using a simple calorie count as a measure ignores the nuances of food and nutrition, reducing even the healthy fats and necessary carbohydrates to large, daunting digits. This is an unreliable indicator of health. Whilst nuts, for example, have a higher calorie count than other foods of their size, they are full of healthy properties such as fats, proteins and fibres. Nuts are also valuable for the energy they release- a positive product of their calorie content. According to the government’s harmful rhetoric, however, nuts appear ‘bad’.

Thus, with a deceptive focus on calories, the government’s approach to tackling obesity seems negligent. Instead of investigating the systemic roots of the health problem, such as the prices of nutritious food in supermarkets and socioeconomic disparities, the government will embark on a hostile campaign, sowing seeds of guilt and self-blame among the public. In turn, this plan for ‘public health’ will have an adverse effect, putting many people’s mental wellbeing in jeopardy. 

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Image: National Review