Calorie labeling on bars, restaurants and takeaway menus will be introduced from today (6 April) in England in hopes of addressing health and obesity-related issues and to encourage the public to make “healthier choices” when eating out.
Mandatory menu labeling was announced by the government in May 2021 and will apply to larger companies with 250 or more employees, but has faced mixed reviews with nutritionists and eating disorder charities concerned about potential unhealthy behavior in comparisons of the food it could cause.
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at one of the UK’s leading eating disorder charities, Beat, says: “We know from the people we support that including calories in menus can contribute to worsening harmful thoughts and behavior. on eating disorders “.
The labeling legislation will mean that calories must be displayed for customers on physical and online menus, food delivery platforms and food labels. It is being introduced as part of the government’s broader strategy to tackle obesity in hopes of ensuring that people make more informed choices when eating out or ordering take-out.
The government estimates that health conditions linked to overweight and obesity cost the NHS approximately £ 6.1 billion each year. They add that nearly two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or obese, as are one in three children when they drop out of primary school.
Former Minister of Public Health, Congressman Jo Churchill, says, “Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families, both in restaurants and at home. That’s why we want to make sure everyone has access to accurate information about the food and drinks we order. ”
With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the impact obesity can have on people’s health, the government says the introduction of measures like these will form “bricks” to “support and encourage people to reach out and maintain a healthier weight “. But the charities say not enough research has been done to see if encouraging calorie counting will make a substantial difference.
Mr. Quinn adds that the charity is “extremely disappointed” by the government’s move to make calorie-labeled menus mandatory despite evidence that it can cause anxiety and stress for people with eating disorders.
He continues: “It can increase the fixation on limiting calories for people with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for people with binge eating disorder. There is also very limited evidence that the legislation will lead to a change in eating habits among the general population ”.
A study by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge found that calorie labeling reduced the amount of calories a person consumed by just 12%, and a survey by Vita Mojo and Kam Media found that only 21% of consumers think that labeling will have a positive effect on the nation’s obesity levels.
Rhiannon Lambert, certified nutritionist for Pho, author and founder of Rhitrition, is also concerned about the potential impact of introducing mandatory calorie labels.
He says that while it can help people make more informed decisions about what they’re eating, for people who already have an eating disorder or a disordered eating, adding calories to menus can only “aggravate” their situation.
He adds: “It may further encourage negative thoughts and lead them to choose the lowest calorie option, when this may be less than what the body needs to function optimally.
“It’s important to remember that calories aren’t everything when it comes to the food we consume. The use of calories can be problematic as they are determined using an outdated calculation, which does not take into account people’s age, size or physical activity levels, which can greatly affect a person’s daily calorie intake .
“You may want to use these numbers as a tool, but it is important to remember that they are not the definitive answer to defining a healthy lifestyle.”
Nutrition and fitness expert Penny Weston agrees. She says, “The information may be helpful for members of the public to clarify which are the healthiest choices when eating out, but likewise, I would say the benefits are unclear.
“Eating healthily is not just about counting calories. While it is helpful in some ways, people shouldn’t be obsessed with sticking to calorie limits as it really depends on their health and diet.
“All calories are not equal in terms of how they are treated in the body and the effects on people’s health. For example, the calories in protein-rich foods will help you stay full longer, while sugary processed foods may have similar calories but have little nutritional value.
An estimated 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder with the pandemic that has exacerbated the country’s mental health crisis. Mr. Quinn adds: “Beat has continually asked the government to consider the impact on people with eating disorders and to take an evidence-based approach when creating health policies. This should involve consulting doctors and eating disorder experts. from experience at every stage of the process “.
Ms. Lambert states that “eating out, and food in general, is often about spending time with friends and family, fun and pleasure. The option to see numbers should be available but not necessary for some people, as it may encourage an unhealthy relationship with food “.