Calorie labelling: Tackling obesity or fuelling eating disorders?

Calorie labelling: Tackling obesity or fuelling eating disorders?

The government announced on 12 May that calorie labelling will be included on restaurants’ menus. Is this decision really going to improve the nation’s health? 

*This article does not discuss obesity-related health conditions
TW: Eating disorders

From April 2022, restaurants, cafes and takeaways will have to have calorie labelling on menus across the country. 

Clearly the UK government, in the midst of a global pandemic, seem to have their priorities mistaken, tackling what to them is the real ‘epidemic’ of this country: obesity. Although health is an important issue that needs to be addressed, they could have not taken a lazier way out with the choice of adding calorie labelling to restaurants’ menus. 

They have justified this decision, stating that these “rules will help the public to make healthier choices when eating out”. But, let’s face the facts. It’s not going to be that one burger, pizza or salad that you eat maybe once a week when out at a restaurant that will impact your overall health. Also, most importantly, being healthy is not equal to consuming few calories. A salad is not necessarily better than a pasta dish, even if diet culture leads people to believe so. 

Furthermore, the government’s article includes overweight people in the category of people affected, however, the UK is once again making the assumption that health is related to a certain BMI. They could not be more wrong. Indeed, recently there has been more discussion around the inaccuracy of BMI in determining someone’s health.

I’m not denying that being obese might lead to certain critical health conditions, but so does being underweight, yet we still don’t deem it as dangerous. Loss of period, osteoporosis or osteopenia, low-heart beat, loss of hair, kidney failure are only some of the side effects of eating disorders (EDs). We also shouldn’t forget that weight has nothing to do with EDs, and overweight or obese people can still be affected by them. Indeed, malnutrition, no matter the weight, should be the focal issue to tackle, as it can be dangerous in any scenario.

Instead of calorie labelling, the country should strive to introduce a better understanding of the food groups, without vilifying any of them. Because no, carbs are not going to make you fat, and no, eating yoghurt with extra protein will not magically give you more muscles. Ideally, having access to a variety of foods and fresh ingredients, as well as having the time to cook your own meals and exercise will help people conduct a better lifestyle.

The main issue that the government doesn’t seem wary of, or perhaps does not want to admit, is that not everyone has that privilege. There is a price disproportion between fresh products like fruit, vegetables, meat or fish and processed or frozen foods in grocery stores. The disparity is evident even when eating at a restaurant or fast-food chain. Indeed, if you’re struggling to make ends meet, would you buy a packet of strawberries or go with two ready meals? 

A European study in 2014 found a link between obesity and poverty, with the reasons being higher unemployment, lower education level, and irregular meals. Inactivity levels were also often linked to a lack of money for sports equipment or access to facilities. In other cases, time constraints might impede others who juggle between different jobs and family chores and cannot afford external help.

The point the government missed here is that more often than not obesity is not a choice, but a consequence of the reality surrounding them. Maybe, before making the decision of adding calorie labelling to menus, those in power should have looked at how to tackle poverty, making resources widely available and educating people around cooking, eating culture, and exercising. 

grocery store
Fruit and vegetables in grocery stores across the country are extremely overpriced compared to other essential foods. Photo: Raul Gonzalez Escobar / Unsplash.

Overall, this plan, which according to the government is meant to tackle obesity, will just promote unhealthy behaviour and misinformation about ‘healthy eating’ — triggering EDs and disordered eating. Additionally, has anyone not reminded them that they have already tried the approach of displaying calories on single packaged products? This approach clearly didn’t work the first time around, so why are they expecting it to work now? 

So, not only is there a higher chance of this plan failing, but it is also likely to do more harm than good. Indeed, calorie counting can be extremely triggering for people with EDs. When people without EDs start engaging in disordered behaviours or mention them as if they are normal, it reinforces the idea in patients that obsessing over calories is ‘healthy’. For others, it will make recovery even harder as they try to move away from unhealthy behaviours. Also, counting calories should be considered disordered no matter the circumstance, or at least it isn’t something we should proudly promote.

The number of patients hospitalised every year because of EDs is increasing year by year, and approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, according to Beat. Do not forget that EDs have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders. 

Surely, you can also argue that obesity levels have increased in the past year in the country. “Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese,” and I am not neglecting this fact. This is why I believe that the government should take action on a national level to promote overall mental and physical health, instead of focusing on such futile actions. Moreover, when looking closer at this matter, it is possible to notice how much obesity and disordered eating have in common. 

The roots lie in shame, misunderstanding from society, and placing values around food that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Although EDs are serious mental health conditions, the growing spread of diet culture and wrong claims labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, fuel disordered behaviours, making recovery harder, but also spotting EDs in the first place which can conceal behind walls of trendy diets. 

So, how many more patients will have to die before the government realises where the energy and funds should go? 

For years, when I was in the depth of anorexia, I was terrified of going into restaurants and when I would go, my brain was consumed with anorexic thoughts that would turn me into a human calculator attempting to guess how many calories I was consuming with each bite: trust me, it wasn’t fun at all. I’ve been trying to rewire my brain to avoid counting calories, I had avoided many restaurants that already display calories and grocery shopping used to be a nightmare for me. Thankfully, now I’m stronger. But I’m not immune. Relapses happen and have happened, and I know that many others are in the same position as me.

The government’s plan is failing to acknowledge the necessary steps to help the nation get healthier. How can they succeed if they are missing the basic understanding of what ‘health’ truly should be in the first place? 

Going out for meals with friends and family should be a pleasant experience. It should be free of judgement, shame or guilt around the dish you choose. This is not going to be as easy to achieve if everyone at the table is worrying about the labels next to each menu item. Of course, knowing what you’re eating is important but that has nothing to do with calories. Being able to trust your body in making the best choice for yourself and feeling at ease during meals should be the real priorities regarding our relationship with food and body image.

Perhaps next time we should tackle the real threat to this country: idiocy.

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