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Experts warn move to calorie-labelled menus is ‘problematic’

‘Calories are not the ultimate answer to defining a healthy lifestyle,’ says nutritionist.

Furvah Shah
Thursday 07 April 2022 10:52 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The labelling of calories on café, restaurant and takeaway menus will be introduced from today (6 April) in England in hopes of tackling health and obesity related-issues and and to encourage the public to make “healthier choices” when eating out.

The mandatory menu-labelling was announced by the government in May 2021 and will apply to larger businesses with 250 or more employees, but has faced mixed reviews with nutritionists and eating disorder charities worried about the potential unhealthy behaviours towards food it could cause.

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at one of UK’s leading eating disorder charities, Beat, says: “We know from the people we support that including calories on menus can contribute to harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviours worsening.”

The labelling legislation will mean that calories are to be displayed for customers on physical and online menus, food delivery platforms and food labels. It is being introduced as a part of the government’s wider strategy to tackle obesity in hopes of ensuring people are making more informed choices when eating food out or ordering takeaways.

The government estimates that overweight and obesity-related health conditions cost the NHS around £6.1 billion each year. They add that almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are overweight or obese, as are one in three children when they leave primary school.

It’s estimated that one in three children leaving primary school in England are overweight or obese (Getty Images)

Former Public Health Minister, MP Jo Churchill, says: “Our aim 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 is why we want to make sure everyone has access to accurate information about the food and drink we order.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the impact that obesity can have on people’s health, the government say introducing measures like these will form “building blocks” to “support and encourage people in achieving and maintaining a healthier weight.” But, charities say that 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” in the government’s move to make calorie-labelled menus mandatory despite evidence that it can cause anxiety and stress for people with eating disorders.

He continues: “It can increase a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge eating disorder. There is also very limited evidence that the legislation will lead to changed eating habits among the general population.”

A study by Oxford and Cambridge universities found that calorie labelling reduced the amount of calories a person consumed by just 12 per cent, and a survey by Vita Mojo and Kam Media found that only 21 per cent of consumers think that the labelling will have a positive effect on the nation’s obesity levels.

Rhiannon Lambert, certified nutritionist for Pho, author and founder of Rhitrition, also worries about the potential impact of introducing mandatory calorie labels.

She says that while it may help people to make more informed decisions about what they are eating, for people who already have an eating disorder or disordered eating, the introduction of calories to menus may only “exacerbate” their situation.

She adds: “It may further encourage negative thoughts and lead to them choose the lowest calorie option, when this may be below what the body requires to function optimally.

“It is important to remember that calories are not everything when it comes to the food we consume. Using calories may be problematic as they are determined using an outdated calculation, which doesn’t consider people’s age, their size, or their physical activity levels, which may greatly influence a person’s daily calorie intake.

“You may wish to use these numbers as a tool but it is important to remember that they are not the ultimate answer to defining a healthy lifestyle.”

“Calories are not everything when it comes to the food we consume,” said Pho’s nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert (Pho Restaurants)

Fitness and nutrition expert, Penny Weston, agrees. She says: “The information may be helpful to members of the public to make it clear which are the healthier choices when eating out but equally, I would say the benefits are not clear cut

“Eating healthily is not just about counting calories. While helpful in some ways, people shouldn’t be obsessing about sticking to calorie limits as it really does depend on your own health and diet.

“All calories aren’t equal in terms of how they are treated in the body and the effects on people’s health. For example, calories in protein-rich foods will help you stay full for longer, whereas sugary processed foods may have similar calories but they have little nutritional value.”

It is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder with the pandemic exacerbating the country’s mental health crisis. Mr Quinn adds: “Beat has continually asked the Government to consider the impact on people affected by eating disorders and to take an evidence-based approach when creating health policies. This should involve consulting eating disorder clinicians and experts by experience at every stage of the process.”

Ms Lambert says “eating out, and food in general, is often about spending time with friends and family, enjoyment, and pleasure. The option to see the numbers should be available but is not necessary for some people, as it may encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.”

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