Unsplash/Mohit Tiwari

Should we be putting calories onto menus?

TW: mention of calories and eating disorders

A briefing document published to accompany the Queen’s speech, broadcast on 11 May, detailed Government plans to order hospitality venues to calorie label their menus. 

The document stated: “The Government will introduce secondary legislation to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 more employees to calories label the food they sell.” The new rules are due to come into force in April 2022. Jo Churchill, Minister for Health, said: “These measures form an important building block in our strategy to support and encourage people in achieving and maintaining a healthier weight.” 

Notably omitted from the announcement were drinks, which will not be required to have calories listed. This was despite the Government’s announcement in April that it was conducting consultations on the introduction of calorie labels for alcoholic drinks, in an attempt to highlight ‘hidden liquid calories’. 

We urge the government to consider delaying the implementation of any legislation rather than layering on new costs for businesses in a sector that has been hardest hit by the pandemic

– Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality

This potential change faced backlash from the drinks industry at the time, with the British Beer and Pub Association claiming that pubs were already “on their knees” due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the Government appears to have decided against calorie-labelling drinks for the meantime, concerns continue to be expressed among hospitality industry professionals. 

Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, expressed worries that the changes would act as “unnecessary red tape” for businesses already suffering greatly from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions.  She added that while UKHospitality shares the concerns of the Government regarding obesity and public health, new measures must “strike a balance and be proportionate” at this time of economic uncertainty.

She further stated: “We urge the government to consider delaying the implementation of any legislation rather than layering on new costs for businesses in a sector that has been hardest hit by the pandemic and risks prolonging their recovery and business’ ability to invest and create jobs.”

Speaking to the BBC, Mowgli’s Street Food founder Nisha Katona warned that calorie-labelling would “see the end for small restaurants if they’re ever compelled to do it” – stating that it is already set to cost her “thousands of pounds and weeks of work”. However, Katona added that despite these drawbacks she personally “can see the value in it”, and supports the idea that people should take a greater interest in how many calories they consume when they eat out.

But perhaps the most vocal opposition to the mandate has come from individuals suffering from and involved in the treatment of eating disorders – in particular, the UK’s leading eating disorder support charity, Beat. 

Living in a society that rewards many of the thoughts and behaviours that are part of having an eating disorder is hard to navigate as I try to leave my illness behind

– Ellen Maloney, Beat blog contributor

Beat’s Director of External Affairs, James Quinn, said he was “extremely disappointed with the plans” and urged the Government to listen to scientists, health workers and those who live with eating disorders before going forth with a mandate. He said there is “clear evidence” indicating it to be “ineffective and dangerous to people affected by eating disorders”.

Writing on Beat’s blog, Ellen Maloney – who suffered with an eating disorder for 20 years – wrote: “Living in a society that rewards many of the thoughts and behaviours that are part of having an eating disorder is hard to navigate as I try to leave my illness behind”, “hunger, we’re told, is something to be controlled and managed, rather than listened to and honoured”.

The announcement comes after increasing evidence that the coronavirus pandemic has worsened public mental health significantly, with one of the fastest-growing facets of mental illness being issues with disordered eating. This is owing in part to growing food insecurity, increased rates of depression, and an “80% growth in smart phone and social media use” according to a study conducted by Imperial College. The national referral statistics for eating disorders in England revealed a doubling in the number of urgent referrals for eating disorders made during 2020.

When Boris Johnson initially aired plans to order businesses to calorie label food last year, a petition was posted online which garnered over 18,000 signatures. The petition hoped to put a stop to the plans, arguing: “Calories are not a constructive way to determine full nutritional value, and we ask the Government to consider other factors.”

The Government published a response to the petition in August 2020: “We are committed to striking a careful balance between informing and educating people to make healthier choices whilst not negatively impacting people with eating disorders or those in recovery from eating disorders.” The statement continues: “However, with over six in 10 adults and more than one in three children aged 10-to-11 years-old overweight or obese it is right that our policy focuses on improving diet and reducing obesity.” 

People who find viewing calorie information more difficult… to avoid this information in certain situations when eating out

– The UK Government

Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert accused the government of focusing too heavily on weight loss as opposed to emphasising the need to make healthier choices for our general wellbeing. Lambert expressed concerns that the mandate “could encourage an unhealthy relationship with food”. She added: “Rather than being dictated by calories, what we all need to be aware of is how to eat healthily, for life not just for weight loss.”

Although the Government has stood by and defended the mandate, they appear to have responded to some extent to criticisms regarding the potential negative effects of the law on individuals suffering with eating disorders. They now include an updated note on their website detailing a provision “which permits businesses to provide a menu without calorie information at the express request of the customer”. The Government states that this will enable “people who find viewing calorie information more difficult… to avoid this information in certain situations when eating out”. 

However, some argue that this provision is insufficient. Writing for iNews, Aimee Meade – a contributing editor currently recovering from an eating disorder – expressed concerns that the amendment places responsibility on the individual, who may already be struggling. Meade wrote: “Eating disorders are cruel and unrelenting- they want you to see that calorie count and use it to punish yourself. It will take an awful lot of strength to ask for that menu, never mind making people feel awkward.”

An enquiry into the Government’s new Obesity Strategy conducted by the Women and Equalities Committee in April 2021 supports these concerns. After stating that they were “disappointed to learn that there have been no reviews of the effectiveness of the current or previous Obesity Strategies”, the Committee declared that the Government ought to “immediately scrap” its plans for calorie labels on food in restaurants, cafes and takeaways. 

93% of people [directly affected by eating disorders] expected the move to have a negative or very negative impact on them

It also asked that they “urgently commission an independent review of its Obesity Strategy and ensure its policies are evidence based”. The Committee concluded that the plans were “at best ineffective and at worst perpetuating unhealthy behaviours”.

The Government have asserted on their website that in an online survey taken in 2017: “79% of respondents said that they think that menus should include the number of calories in food and drink.” The survey consisted of 1037 people over 16 as representatives of the population of the UK. 

Beat, however, more recently surveyed 1118 individuals with an eating disorder, past eating disorder, or those caring for a loved one with an eating disorder. It found that 93% of people expected the move to have a negative or very negative impact on them.

One respondent said: “The thought of seeing calories on menus makes me feel so sick, and sends me straight back into the depths of my eating disorder. It’s going to affect so many people, and instead of helping, will only make the mental health crisis worse.”  

Beat has also drafted a letter, which members of the public can send to their local MPs in order to urge them to write to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. It is to “implore them to consider whether the introduction of mandatory calorie-labelling on menus represents best practice, either in terms of promoting health or in ensuring no harm to those with eating disorders.” 

The letter emphasises that: “Eating out at restaurants should not be reserved for those who feel well enough to do so and should not put vulnerable people at risk.” With the plans set to be introduced in ten months, many will be waiting to see whether the government will once again change this policy.

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