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Why have calorie labels been introduced on menus?

The new rules are in place from Wednesday 6 April

Laura Hampson
Thursday 07 April 2022 10:39 BST

Diners in England will notice something different this week when eating out at larger restaurant chains — calories on their menus.

From Wednesday 6 April, restaurants, cafes and takeaway stores with more than 250 staff must print how many calories are in their meals on their in-house menus, on their websites and on any delivery platforms they may use.

The new rule was proposed by the government in May last year and is part of its wider plan to tackle the obesity epidemic and help people to make healthier choices.

However, the move has seen widespread backlash both from the restaurant community and eating disorder charities.

What are calories and why are they important?

Calories are a measure for the amount of energy that an item of food or drink contains.

An average man needs to consume 2,500 calories a day to maintain a healthy body weight, while the average woman should consume around 2,000 calories a day.

The amount of calories one person needs will be individual to them, depending on age, weight and levels of physical activity.

Calories can be expended through activities like exercise or walking, but when we consume more calories than we expend, this is one factor that can lead to weight gain.

Why has the government mandated that calories be put on menus?

The new rule states that food and drink businesses in England with over 250 employees must display calorie information on their in-person and online menus.

The government has introduced these measures in a bid to allow consumers to make “healthier” and more informed choices when dining out or ordering takeaways.

It’s part of the government’s plan to tackle obesity, as nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are obese or overweight.

One in three children are also classed as overweight by the time they leave primary school.

Current estimates say that the NHS spends £6.1bn per year on overweight and obesity-related conditions.

What backlash has there been to this move?

A survey conducted by Public Health England found that 79 per cent of respondents think menus should list the number of calories in food and drinks, yet not everyone agrees.

Tom Quinn, of eating disorder charity Beat, says the charity is “extremely disappointed” by the move.

He told PA: “We know from the people we support that including calories on menus can contribute to harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviours worsening.

“For instance, 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.”

Quinn explained that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder and the pandemic has contributed to more people than ever needing support.

He continued: “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.”

Mark Selby, co-founder of restaurant Wahaca, told the BBC that while the chain was “compeltely up for being clear and transparent” the focus on calorie counting was a “problem”.

“It tells part of the story but I think it slightly misses out some quite important fundamentals around food - be it nutrition, fibre, all those things - which potentially we feel might be more relevant or certainly need to be considered,” he explained.

Winner of MasterChef: The Professionals, Sven Hanson Britt tweeted that the move is a “terrible” thing for the restaurant industry.

“The law kicks in for ‘large hospitality businesses’ to display calorie info on menus. What a terrible, terrible thing to happen to the hospitality industry and a waste of time, money and a potential danger,” he wrote in a Twitter thread.

“The obsession with calories and calorie counting has proven to be dangerous, potentially leading to eating disorders like bulimia,” he continued. “Kids will grow up in restaurants, hotels and cafes only looking at that little number below a dish. Choices will be made based on a number alone. The love of flavour, ingredients, history, cooking craft or nutrition will be lost and masked by a newly perceived focus.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Obesity is one of the biggest health issues we face as a country and clear food labelling plays an important role in helping people make healthier choices for themselves and their families.

“We are all used to seeing nutritional information on products sold in supermarkets and displaying calorie information on menus can help us consume fewer calories when eating out or getting a takeaway.

“The regulations will also allow businesses to provide menus without calorie information at the request of the customer.”

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