Calorie Counting: Helpful or Harmful?

TW: discussion of calories, weight, eating disorders

Because of various societal factors, such as fatphobia and popularised (yet misguided) health claims originating from diet culture, many of us have internalised from a young age that calories are the devil and that thin bodies are healthy bodies. The former idea comes from our association of low-calorie diets to health, and the latter comes from our association of health to thinness. With new calorie labelling requirements to be enforced for large businesses in England starting in April 2022, it is clear that the UK government’s objective for tackling the health crisis in the UK is to promote a weight loss agenda rather than sustainable healthy lifestyles. Health and nutrition are complex subjects that cannot be boiled down to calorie counts, and the government’s lacklustre efforts to improve health will likely do more harm than good.

Firstly, putting calorie labels on menus to encourage consumers to choose ‘healthier’ items is counter-intuitive. Calorie labels say absolutely nothing about the nutritive value of a food; for example, wholegrain bread may be higher in calories than a rice cake, but higher in fibre and other nutrients that make it more satiating. If people choose their foods based on calories alone, they may be missing out on key nutrients. This can lead to their consuming more than they otherwise would have later on, as the psychological impact of restriction often leads to over-eating or binging. If the goal were really to improve health, would it not make more sense to encourage consumers to ignore calorie counts and focus on factors such as health benefits and satiety, as well as satisfaction? Though this policy intends to help consumers make more ‘informed’ choices, it will hardly achieve this effect.

Relative meaninglessness of these labels aside, the effect of calorie labels on overall calorie reduction in meal orders is negligible; a study of calorie labelling in restaurant chains in the U.S. shows that though there was a slight decrease in average calories per transaction during the first year after enforcement of labelling, the effects were not sustained after that. This makes sense, as these labels don’t really teach consumers how to make healthy choices that work for them and their lifestyle. It’s the same logic as to why diets and New Year’s resolutions never work; if your new habits aren’t enjoyable, you’re probably not going to stick with them. Additionally, the novelty of seeing calorie counts next to menu items will likely wear off, and after a certain point, the average consumer may not even notice them.

Perhaps the most significant impact of this policy will be its effect on those suffering from eating disorders or disordered eating habits, as these issues often manifest as obsessions with calories. For those who struggle with their relationship with food, eating out can be a terrifying enough experience as it is without knowing calorie contents. Having calorie counts displayed will be anxiety-inducing for many individuals and may cause them to restrict at that moment or later in the day as a consequence of food guilt. Eating out should be an enjoyable experience, not an agonising one. The government has inadequately addressed the devastating impacts that this policy will have on those who are suffering from, recovering from, or are at risk of developing eating disorders or disordered eating, simply saying that such individuals should just seek treatment. In a time when our collective mental health has been getting steadily worse and demand for treatment is higher than before (making it less accessible), this is an unacceptable response. Not everyone can access care (due to waitlists, distance, or other factors), but everyone who goes out to eat will potentially be impacted by calorie labels.

I recognise that improving overall health in the UK is vital and am not trying to diminish the purpose of this policy. However, calorie labels are not the solution. Perhaps more holistic campaigns mirroring the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement (which encourages body acceptance, and eating and exercising in a way that is sustainable and healthy for the individual) would be a better approach, given much evidence that shows that weight is not the most important indicator of health. The government must work to reduce the socioeconomic inequalities between different demographic groups, causing food deserts and lack of suitable education and healthcare. When such vast disparities exist, putting calorie labels on menus to mitigate the issue of national health seems like a quick fix, which, at its best, has minimal impact on consumer behaviour, and at its worst, will harm those with eating disorders and normalise poor relationships with food, as well as disordered eating behaviours.

[Victoria Hoyt – she/her – @winey.grapes (instagram)]

[Photo credits: Andres Ayrton

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