• Rachel Fletcher

Calories on menus - what's the deal ?


What's changed?

Recently, the English government introduced a law requiring the calories of all dishes and drinks on menus at restaurants, pubs, cafes and takeaways who employ 250+ staff.

It's fair to say that this legislation has divided opinion.


Why has the law been bought in?

The thinking behind this law is to help people make healthier food choices and tackle the so called ob*sity epidemic and associated health conditions.

Potential benefits

Non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease can be associated with higher weight, and treating these illnesses costs the NHS around £1.6 billion a year.


Having calories clearly displayed on menus may help people to make informed and healthier food choices. For some people, counting calories works as a strategy for losing weight and doesn't lead to disordered eating or a problematic relationship with food.


Potential pitfalls

The relationship between health and weight is complex and studies have repeatedly demonstrated that being in a larger body does not necessarily equate to poor health outcomes. Conversely, you can be slim and in poor health.


For many people, calorie counting simply does not work and for many, leads to disordered eating practices. Studies have shown that calorie counting can lead to obsessive behaviour, a problematic relationship with food, and eating disorders. For those recovering from eating disorders, seeing calories on menus is extremely triggering. Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK are suffering with eating disorders, however this is likely to be a conservative estimate as many people suffer and are undiagnosed. Plus, this figure does not take into account disordered eating which has a negative imapct on health even though it's not a diagnosed illness.


Furthermore, focusing solely on calories entirely misses the point. Calories do not equal 'health'. Achieving a healthy, balanced diet should include consideration of carbohydrate, fibre, protein, fats and fruit and vegetable intakes. What calories don’t tell you is the actual nutrient content of food, and some higher calorie foods such as salmon, or nuts may in fact contain more nutrients and benefits to overall health. Good health includes having a healthy relationship with food and not restricting or obsessing about food, calories and exercise.


Food is food. There are no 'good or bad', our body needs all kinds of food in a balanced diet.


In any case, the calculation of calories in food is complex and should be taken as an estimate rather than the exact amount that you will get from the food. This is because the declared calories can be up to 30% inaccurate. In addition, you may not absorb the full amount of calories or nutrients due to individual differences, such as your gut health.


I haven't even got started on the social and mental health benefits of eating out..... Who wants to feel stressed about food choices when they are in a lovely restaurant with friends and family ? Are you going to choose your food on the basis of a number, or on its flavour, or nutritional benefits ? Or maybe on the basis its just something you fancy or really want to eat ?


What's the alternative?

The causes of weight gain and ob*sity are complex and multifactoral, it's just not as simple as saying 'calories in v. calories out'. Adding calories to menus is just not going to address public health issues on it's own. Plus, I'll say it again for the people at the back - calories are not the whole story for good nutrition. If labelling is the answer (which it isn't) then why not say how many portions of fruit and vegetables, or how much fibre each dish includes ?


Why not invest in educating the population, including in schools about healthy eating and the benefits of a varied diet. This should be with an overall health focus, not just about calories, ensuring people have a good relationship with food. Teach people how to make nutritious and varied meals on all budgets and actually address the socio-economic disparities in this country that leave people relying on food banks. Whilst food banks do an amazing job, they shouldn't be needed and lets face it, it's really hard to ensure you're getting the nutrients you need when you're living in food poverty and reliant on others for support. Spending money on this is more likely to have an impact than calories on menus.


FYI - you can ask for a menu without calories. Many restaurants are supplying alternatives 👍 Or, why not try some local, independent cafes and restaurants that aren't required to adhere to this legislation.


Want help understanding what's healthy for YOU?

If you feel uncomfortable about this new law, or feel triggered in any way. Please do reach out to a qualified professional for support. This could be your GP, a dietitian, nutritionist or mental health professional. There are also fantastic support charities out there, such as 'Beat' who offer a range of support for the eating disorder community including online and telephone services. You can contact them on the following numbers: 0808 801 0677 (adult helpline), 0808 801 0711 (youthline) and 0808 801 0811 (studentline) or take a look at their website: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/


Remember, good health is more than just a number.... I can help you mend your relationship with food, help you learn what's healthy and good for your body and mind, without restricting, or focusing on calories. If this is something you'd like to learn more about, get in touch and book a FREE 15 minute discovery chat with me: https://calendly.com/rachelfletchernutrition/15min


References

Gov.uk (2017). Health Matters: Obesity and the Food Environment. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-obesity-and-the-food-environment/health-matters-obesity-and-the-food-environment--2


Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H, Graubard BI. Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2013 Jan 2;309(1):71-82. Available from: https://doi:10.1001/jama.2012.113905


BEAT (2022). About Beat. Available at: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/about-beat/


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