Calorie Counts on Menus are Dangerous and Divisive
Updated: Sep 19
Written by Ellie Philips
Illustration by Aimee Lee
In a momentary distraction from its calamitous handling of the pandemic, the government announced last month its new plan to curb obesity within the UK. The timing of this announcement is either strategic or senseless depending on whether it’s viewed as part of a wider strategy to improve health as a means of better protecting the nation from coronavirus or as unnecessary diversion from the virus’s more immediate ramifications. Given the nature of the proposals laid out, I am inclined to hedge my bets on the latter.
As part of the government’s bid to reduce obesity it has suggested the introduction of mandatory calorie counts on the menus of restaurants or cafes which have over 250 employees. The justification for this is that increased nutritional information and awareness will encourage consumers to make ‘wiser’ choices. It is an approach that is rooted in the grossly oversimplified rhetoric of individual responsibility and blame for obesity.
Much of the initial response to the government’s proposals emerged from those with experience of eating disorders. For those struggling with an eating disorder, calorie counts are likely to be extremely triggering: exacerbating a fixation with restriction and stilting recovery. There is also concern that calorie counts will contribute towards a rise in new cases of eating disorders, encouraging an unhealthy focus on numbers which may easily spiral into obsession. Indeed, Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, released a response statement which emphasised the importance of avoiding shaming people into losing weight as a method of obesity reduction. Fostering associations between food and shame is a staggeringly short-sighted practice which is likely to cause enduring damage.
Beat further criticised the government strategy for ‘ignoring the many complex factors involved’ in causing obesity. By putting the onus for solution on the individual, the government circumvents its own culpability in contributing to the conditions which perpetuate obesity. To understand the prevalence of the condition in the UK we must look to its entrenched systemic causes which cannot be remedied simply by shrewd individual decision making. There is a scarcity of affordable healthy food options in supermarkets; we work longer hours than any European country and are time-poor when it comes to preparing nutritious food; the health food industry is monopolised by the privileged; there is grave discrepancy between the standards of food and exercise provision between wealthy schools and poorer schools. I need not go on. To introduce calorie counts on menus suggests that obesity is a personal fault rather than a symptom of structural societal inequalities. It deplorably equates obesity with fecklessness and moral weakness.
Calorie counts are also a swift way of eradicating the pleasure of eating out. For the majority, going out to eat is a treat, a welcome interruption from everyday domestic monotony. Rich memories are spun from the act of enjoying good food in good company. Sitting at a rickety table in the poorly lit nook of a busy restaurant indulgently trying to unpick the world’s problems over a full glass of red and glossy vats of spaghetti; a hearty, all-hands-in curry accompanied by burnished, billowy naan and sunshine yellow rice; the blissfully restorative tang of a sorbet after schlepping around an unfamiliar city on a blisteringly hot day.
We might well feel a momentary sense of accomplishment as we smugly ask the waiter for the salad as opposed to the more calorific option, but I can assure you this will be fleeting. The deflation of seeing a pizza whiz past you to someone else as you sit with your limp salad mustering up a bravado smile is far more poignant than the initial satisfaction of deprivation. What you’ll remember is not a joyful evening of uncomplicated pleasure but of angst and indecision caused by the glaring and arbitrary numbers that condemn each item of food they follow on from. However good the company is, you won’t forget that the mental arithmetic you found yourself doing as you consulted the menu, the calorie counts offering you a miserable choice between guilt or disappointment.
Tackling obesity is a worthy issue, but the methods the government is choosing to employ to do so are not. What is required is funding, compassion and a willingness to dismantle the structural inequalities that determine vulnerability to health conditions such as obesity. Given the Conservative government’s track record, we might be waiting for this a while.