The Impact of Calories on Menus

How is the government's decision to put calories on menus affecting us?

Imogen Clarke
10th May 2022
Image Credit: Pexels

Trigger Warning: Obesity, Calories, Eating Disorders.

In order to tackle the nationwide problem of obesity and physical health, the government will now require restaurants, cafes, takeaways, and any 'out-of-home' food businesses to display calorie information to customers. For now, it is only a legal requirement for large businesses, with 250 employees or more, to make the change. Presumably, this is due to the cost of editing menus in order to add calorie information at the 'point of choice' for the customer. The government has been careful that the legislation will not impact small, independent businesses, however, they will be encouraged to make the changes if possible.

The new calorie-counting legislation may only serve to add to diet-culture and eating disorders

The Gov.uk website has cited the primary reason for this new legislation to be obesity in the UK, and it's significant strain on the NHS. The government states that 63% of adults, and 1 in 3 primary school children in England are overweight or living with obesity. The health effects of this has been reported to cost the NHS £6.1 billion each year across the UK. Clearly, the government is intending to 'close the gap' on unhealthy eating, with the new calorie rules applying to non-pre-packaged food, or 'in house' meals/ takeaways. It is already mandatory for food bought in supermarkets, for example, to display nutrition information and calories anyway. The new legislation will undoubtedly mean that calorie information pervades all aspects of our life. For example, the rules will even apply to events caterers, planes and ferries.

Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill, claims that the government merely wants to make it easier 'for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families'. On average, portions of food or drink that we consume as takeaways, or out of the home in cafes or restaurants, contain twice as many calories as their equivalent brought in a shop. However, this new stance from the government seems odd, after the 'eat-out-to-help-out' scheme in August 2020, which actively encouraged people to eat unhealthier meals in restaurants to boost the economy. Perhaps the increased impact of COVID-19 on those who were overweight has swayed them to take action.

Although the public should be encouraged to make healthier food choices, the new calorie-counting legislation may only serve to add to diet-culture and eating disorders. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is about balance, which means there is nothing wrong with eating whatever you want in restaurants, as long as this is done alongside exercise and eating well at other times. Calorie-counting, and sticking to a strict, is neither healthy nor sustainable in the long term. However, the government's forcing of calories onto our menus is surely promoting this. The crux of the issue is that healthier food is often for expensive, both in supermarkets and at restaurants or takeaways. McDonald's, for example, is a cheap and easy option for many lower income families. Along with all other large food-consumption business, McDonald's will also be required to add a calorie count next to eat meal and beverage. However, this will not discourage people with, in their opinion, no other option from eating there.

And talking of beverages, the government's calorie-counting rules will not apply to any drink over 1.2% ABV (alcohol by volume percentage). A large cause of obesity in the UK is over-consumption of alcohol. However, such beverages will not be labelled according to the rules. If the government wants to tackle obesity in the UK, it needs to cover all bases, beginning with education. Childhood obesity, for example, can be improved with teaching parents and children how to eat healthier, and cook quick, nutritious meals from home. However, eating disorders such as body dysmorphia and anorexia in children are equally important, which could be made worse by the new rules. Anorexia is still the deadliest mental health issue in this country. What's more, the government should be subsidising fresh fruit and veg, for those who struggle to afford it, rather than shaming those who cannot afford to eat healthily, and do not have time to exercise regularly.

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