Friday, August 7, 2020

The Problem With Calorie Counts on Menus


Hey everyone, today I thought I'd write about something that's been causing quite a controversy in the news and on social media lately, and that's calorie counted menus. As someone that's struggled with eating and body image for the majority of my teenage years, I have a bone to pick with the government's new plan, not only for how it may affect many sufferers of eating disorders, but also how it blatantly fails to tackle wider issues of our national obesity problem.

Probably goes without saying, but this post will largely discuss EDs/disordered eating, so if you will feel uncomfortable reading this or it could possibly cause you distress, please don't scroll any futher!

The government recently announced its plans last week to tackle obesity in the UK, including: encouraging overweight people to lose weight to save NHS funding, banning certain food adverts before 9pm, the launch of a weight loss app and, most controversially, planning to include calorie counts on the menus of restaurants, caf├ęs and takeaways. The legislation remains an idea for now, with no current date for its arrival into the House of Commons. 

For anyone aware of the struggles of disordered eating, I'm sure alarm bells were ringing after reading the last item on that agenda. There are several reasons why including calorie counts on menus may hinder more than it helps. 


The detriments of calorie counting



Firstly, it has long been known that counting calories plays a big and incredibly detrimental role in eating disorders. Counting calories allows sufferers to control their calorific intake through excessive monitoring of the things they consume, from full meals down to the tiniest bites, such as a couple of grapes, a tablespoon of peanut butter, or a rice cake. Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at one of the UKs biggest eating disorder prevention charities 'Beat', reiterates this point by saying:

"Many people with eating disorders count calories or track weight loss to the point of obsession, and apps can facilitate or exacerbate such behaviours and make recovery harder."(1)

Though Mr Quinn is referring to calorie counting apps, his point still stands about the negative effects calorie control has for people currently suffering with, or trying to recover from an eating disorder.

No stranger to eating disorders myself, I understand the anxiety that comes with going out to eat, and the overwhelming discomfort of being unaware of every single ingredient, calorie or macro-nutrient going into whatever you order. That's why it is such an important, and recommended, step in recovery, yet the government's plan to allow calorie control to continue outside of homes and supermarkets makes it so much harder.


Not a small minority


When viewing others speaking about this online, I quickly noticed a go-to comeback against their argument was always something along the lines of, "well just because a small minority don't like it, doesn't mean we shouldn't put it in place. It's more important that overweight people know their intake!". This sort of response is incredibly misinformed on two accounts. One, it largely underestimates just how many people suffer from eating disorders in the UK, and two, it makes the false assumption that including calorie counts will provide people with a good understanding of nutritional choices, spoiler alert: it won't.

Regarding the first point, it is estimated that around 1.6 million people are affected by eating disorders in the UK(2), this is by no means a "small minority". This statistic combined with the fact that eating disorders have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders, and that 320,000 of the 1.6 million are likely to remain chronically ill(3), is more than enough evidence to suggest that the government needs to think much more critically about the potential negative effects of including calorie counts on menus, and the possible alternatives to this idea. NHS mental health resources are already incredibly underfunded and overstretched, it makes little sense for the government to attempt to save NHS funding by tackling the obesity crisis, only to use methods which may potentially see more people needing NHS support for different reasons.


Understanding calories  ≠ understanding nutrition


Regarding the second point, it is foolish to suggest that including calorie labels in restaurants and cafes will in anyway promote people to make healthier choices (don't even get me started on the irony of this plan being suggested at the same time the government is providing 50% discounts on restaurants and fast food chains).

It is old news that Britain doesn't have a good understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet, an old guardian article references one of the many surveys taken to understand just exactly what we as a society know about nutrition.

"A survey by the Food Standards Agency has uncovered surprisingly high levels of ignorance about how much bread and pasta people should eat, the key role played by fruit and vegetables, and even how much damage products high in fat or sugar can do to their health.

While 58 percent [of 2,094] correctly said that foods high in fat or sugar should be eaten only 'occasionally', 42 percent did not. One in five insisted that they could eat extra fruit and vegetables to outweigh the effects of consuming products they knew were bad for them."(4)

Granted, this survey used a rather small data sample; however, it is one example that helps highlight the issue of a fundamental misunderstanding of nutrition and healthy eating within the UK. Without clear education and guidance on exactly what it means to have a balanced lifestyle, the necessary balances of different food groups, and the risks associated with certain foods, having calories printed on a menu isolates one consideration that needs to be made alongside many others, in order for someone to make the right nutritional choices.

Calorie counting is not, and never has been, an indication of how healthy food is, and without addressing the underlying causes of poor diet, something that often goes hand-in-hand with economic circumstances, the government is doing it's people a disservice.


An addition to the poverty punishment rhetoric 


Finally, it appears to me that these proposed introductions to the government only add to the rhetoric that the battle against obesity is a literal one, and that very little will be done to address one of the largest causes of poor diet in the UK, namely: a persons financial situation.

For example, around 4 million children in the UK are living in households that struggle to afford enough fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods to meet official nutritional guidelines(5). With obese children more likely to carry obesity into adulthood(6), I'm struggling to understand why the government is not delivering equal attention to the very foundations of the issues they are trying to curb with unhelpful methods.

Ultimately, the government wishing to introduce calorie counts on menus, yet remaining silent on any plans for making healthy food affordable and accessible to all, leaves little room to think this is anything other than a scapegoat plan, that steps around the root of the problem, while also failing to consider those that may be greatly harmed in it's implementation.

If you would like to help not make this proposal a reality, there is a link where you can sign a petition here.

I hope you found this somewhat informative, and not too ranty!

Take care x

(1) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-48842898 

(2, 3) https://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/about/statistics

(4) https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/sep/16/health.healthandwellbeing1

(5) https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/sep/05/four-million-uk-children-too-poor-to-have-a-healthy-diet-study-finds



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2 comments

  1. I am not a fan of calorie counting. I mean, it is a good guidance to know what you're consuming, but not everyone's body operates the same when it comes to calories. Some burn more than others with different factors. I agree with you about calories vs nutrition!! Some foods can have low calories and lack the nutrition that your body actually needs. Thanks for sharing all of these facts!

    Nancy ✨ exquisitely.me

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  2. I used to look at the calorie count at the stuff I eat, but now I try to stay away from it. I do think the information can be useful, but I agree that it could be dangerous sometimes especially if you associate less calories as health and nutrition. Thanks for sharing

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