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Calories on menus are causing more harm than good


4 min read

Dining out in a restaurant should be one of life’s little treats, and for most of us it is.

But for the growing number of people who suffer from eating disorders, eating in a restaurant can become a source of anxiety and stress. For those suffering from disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, learning how to dine out again can form an important part of their recovery.

New legislation came into force in April, requiring large restaurants to place calories on their menus. The thinking behind it was straight forward enough: we have an obesity crisis in England, therefore, give people the calorie information they need to make an informed choice.

Some consumers are becoming overly conscious of their food choices in ways that can prove detrimental to their wellbeing

The trouble is, as with any case of government intervention, it’s never as simple as it first appears. For those looking to lose weight, knowing how many calories are in each dish might well be a useful guide. But when it comes to those suffering from an eating disorder which causes them to under-eat, their priority should be to re-establish a healthy relationship with food, to learn again to enjoy it and to do away with the unhealthy fixations that exacerbate their condition.

The very last thing this growing group needs is a reminder of how many calories are in every item on the menu. The worry is that they will simply concentrate on the calories and end up taking a step back, rather than one forward.

I recently spoke with a concerned parent, whose child suffers from Anorexia Nervosa, and now struggles to enjoy family time spent in restaurants because of the new style of menu. Her child looks for meals with the least number of calories, instead of choosing what she would most enjoy, which has led to the family having to adapt how they approach a restaurant experience.

The stigma that is now attached to certain menu items means some consumers, like this young girl, are becoming overly conscious of their food choices in ways that can prove detrimental to their overall wellbeing.

Furthermore, this legislation forces restaurants, cafes and takeaways to publish an inaccurate statement that flies in the face of NHS guidance.

Eateries are required by law to declare that “adults need around 2,000 kcal a day”. This is in stark contrast to NHS guidelines, which state that “ideal daily intake of calories varies depending on age, metabolism and levels of physical activity, among other things”.

The truth is that, while calorie counting has its uses, it is disputed as to how accurate it is in determining how healthy any particular diet might be.

We all know that Olympic rowers require far more than average. We all know that if you do less activity, you need a bit less. Neither can be well informed from a piece of generalised government guidance.

I believe it's imperative that we strike a balance between tackling the rising obesity problem (itself a form of eating disorder) and continuing to support those who suffer from a difficult relationship with food.

For example, it would be better if restaurants, cafes, and takeaways were required to provide the calorie information on customer request rather than on every menu by government mandate – allowing those who would like to know, the opportunity.

But the reality is, these steps are minor compared to the food education our schools should be engaging in – and the funding gap in mental health support, so we begin to properly help those who are in a cycle where they struggle with food.

As with any legislation, we need to know the effectiveness of this policy and so it’s vital the government keeps this current law under review, and to ask the question; is it having a meaningful effect on obesity, or is it causing more harm than good?


Jacob Young is the Conservative MP for Redcar.

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