8 April 2022

For people with eating disorders, these calorie counts are a curse


Sometimes it is not until the consequences of a new Government policy are quite literally staring you in the face, that you realise quite how unpleasant it really is. So it was when I visited one of my favourite restaurants this week to be confronted by calorie counts on the menu; rendering an otherwise pleasant experience rather unpalatable.

In the finest traditions of evidence-free policymaking, the Government has decreed that from this week that hospitality businesses with more than 250 employees must calorie counts on food and drink at the point of choice. The rationale – if you can call it that – is that obesity related conditions are costing the NHS £6.1 billion a year and the pandemic has underlined the impact of obesity on people’s health.

There’s a bunch of solid arguments you could deploy against this initiative: it’s nannying, patronising, expensive for businesses still recovering from the pandemic and adversely affects people who have had or are experiencing eating disorders.

Above all, though, the policy doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to. Scour the government press releases, committee reports and Hansard debates and you will find precious little evidence that calorie labelling reduces obesity. If the Government prefers to stick to general rhetoric, it’s because there’s so little specific research that suggests this is a good idea.

In fact, what studies there have been suggest calorie labelling has little effect on calorie intake. A 2009 study which studies the difference between choices made in fast-food outlets in New York, which implemented calorie labelling, to those made in New Jersey, which had not, ‘did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labelling’.

And, as specialists have been at pains to point out, it’s not even clear that simply counting calories is at all effective as a long-term weight loss strategy.  Careful calorie calculations don’t always yield uniform results: how your body burns calories depends a number of wide-ranging factors, including metabolism and gut organisms. Even Henry Dimbleby, who headed up the Government’s mammoth National Food Strategy, has acknowledged that the new policy will have very little effect on diners’ habits.

Health ministers contend that displaying calorie information will help consumers make more informed choices – but there comes a point where adding too much information becomes counter-productive. People go out to eat for a bit of escapism and enjoyment, not to feel chastised about what they might fancy that particular lunchtime.

For many people, this new government mandate is merely an annoyance. But for the 1.25 million people who have suffered or are suffering from an eating disorder, the impacts are far more damaging.

According to BEAT, an eating disorder charity, calorie labels will encourage obsessions over calorie counting, increase anxiety, and social reclusion, and hinder the recovery process for those with anorexia and bulimia. In a recent BEAT survey, 93% of respondents thought that calorie labelling would have a negative impact on those with eating disorders. One respondent said that ‘the thought of seeing calories on menus…sends me straight back into the depths of my eating disorder’.

Bear in mind too that the pandemic years have already seen a huge increase in the number of people with eating disorders in the UK. The number of under-20s admitted to hospital with due to eating disorders has risen by 50% in the past year, and some hospitals are now running out of space to treat them. It is baffling that the Government has introduced a policy which will only serve to exacerbate this.

The Government is taking the British people for fools. People struggling with weight gain understand the calorific differences between a poke bowl and a family sized bucket; those with eating disorders are being tormented for absolutely no reason. This is an inhumane, poorly thought-through policy that the Government should rethink as soon as possible.

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Emily Fielder is Head of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.