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The Harmful Implications Behind Adding Calories to Menus

Trigger warning: This article contains references to calories and eating disorders.

Since the beginning of April, the UK government has rendered it a legal requirement for all large businesses with 250+ staff to include calories on menus and food packaging. This was initially announced last year – so it had actually slipped my mind that this law was coming into effect until I went to one of my favourite takeaway/eat-in places at the start of the month.

To my astonishment, I was faced with bold-lettered calories staring me down as I approached to order the katsu curry I’d been craving all day. In shock, I found myself paused at the counter, counting the calories in my head and debating whether to choose something else.

Luckily, calories don’t trouble me as much as they used to, and I was able to reason with myself to stick to the meal I really wanted; after all, eating out should be about treating yourself! There was a time when being faced with those calories would have forced me to choose another option, and like so many others, I would not have reasoned with myself at the counter.

The Government announced that this law is to “help the public to make healthier choices when eating out“, yet I find the word ‘healthier’ to be rather uninformed. I mean, just because something is higher in calories, it does not necessarily mean that it is always unhealthy but rather can have lots of nutritional benefits. It’s like comparing a packet of crisps to a chicken pasta salad, for example—obviously, the packet of crisps will contain fewer calories, but will it provide as much nutrition or fill you up for longer? Absolutely not!      

Calories refer to the amount of energy provided through food, and while the number of calories you consume will have an effect on your body weight, it has little to do with nutritional value! I think there is a common misconception when discussing calories that assume lower calories are always healthy eating, and I think that by adding calories on menus, the government is perpetuating this.

While our country is certainly struggling with obesity, I’m unable to see how calories on a menu are going to solve this. Many people who struggle with eating disorders, such as binge eating, would perhaps not simply look at a takeaway menu, see the calories, and then choose not to order; rather, they could feel more shame and guilt when ordering the takeaway, and consequently spiral deeper and deeper into disordered eating. Therefore, I believe that adding calories on menus contributes more to damaging mental health than promoting a healthy lifestyle.

In fact, businesses such as Wagamama have chosen to provide customers with a calorie-free menu should they ask, “appreciating that everyone’s relationship with food differs“. The idea that everyone’s relationship with food is different is exactly the kind of approach the government should have considered when enforcing this rule; it is easy to find out the number of calories in a meal when you are dieting, and of course, people should not be denied this, but to be uncontrollably faced with calories when, for example, recovering from an eating disorder is not easy.

I think that there are so many different ways that our government can be educating the public on healthy lifestyles, without damaging their mental health, such as: doing more to promote physical activity from a young age, lowering the prices of healthier alternatives in supermarkets, and funding mental health services to establish healthier relationships with food.      

I am not denying the importance of a healthy lifestyle, but people should be able to go for a meal and treat themselves without feeling guilty or persuaded into choosing something with fewer calories. Placing calories in front of those who are struggling with eating is, in my opinion, going to result in more damage than good.

For anyone struggling with the way they perceive calories, check out @thisisiona on TikTok—she uses her platform to discuss her ED struggles and recovery and creates lots of cooking content using recipes that many who struggle with food perhaps would avoid due to calories. They use their platform to celebrate food no matter how scary it may seem, and I just find their videos so comforting!

Words by: Ellen Churchyard

Edited by: Ellis Idris

Hi! I'm Ellen, a second year English Literature student aspiring to write fun and informative articles :)
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