Trigger warning: contains discussion of calories, eating disorders, exercise, body image
This April, the UK government made the decision to add calories to menus across the UK. The ruling has affected restaurants, cafes and food delivery sites with more than 250 employees. Whilst some restaurants, mostly chains and fast food outlets, had previously displayed calories on menus, it was not a widespread practice. This comes as part of the UK government’s attempt to tackle obesity across the nation and has proved, unsurprisingly, to be a controversial choice.
A few months after the rollout, many are feeling the implications of this new ruling. The stories I’ve heard anecdotally that relate to the new law have all followed a similar narrative: dread upon seeing the number of calories next to the food item the person desired and guilt for choosing the food item anyway or changing their original selection to something they didn’t want but had fewer calories. A friend confessed she had ordered normal fries instead of halloumi fries, and another friend a salad in place of her Sunday roast, the calorific content proving too jarring for them.
Although the government states the aim of adding calories to menus is to help people make healthier food choices for themselves and their families, it seems they are missing the point entirely. Nutrition can’t be broken down by calories, which are simply units of energy. For instance, 500 calories of chocolate aren’t going to provide the same nutritional value as consuming 500 calories of vegetables. Reductive ways of talking about calories and our society’s obsession with meticulously calorie-counting often lead to confusing ideas about what constitutes “healthy” food.
What constitutes a “healthy” diet varies not only on an individual basis but between cultures too. A Eurocentric view of healthy food so often appears as a salad, or following recent wellness and fitness trends, grilled salmon with steamed vegetables and a distinct lack of flavor. But there are plenty of cultures that prove that healthy foods aren’t doomed to be tasteless.
I’d be shocked to learn, however, that most people who have chosen to go for pizza with their friends or ordered a takeaway are surprised by the news that what they’re eating isn’t the healthiest option available. Food, the government might be disappointed to find out, isn’t always about prioritizing health. Food can be about cultivating social bonds, creating comfort or experiencing new cultures. For others, it’s about convenience, survival or simply fulfilling a craving.
Education is often touted as a solution for reducing obesity. However, educating people on how to make home-cooked meals and the importance of consuming a specific number of calories a day is pointless if people don’t have the resources to do so. Due to the increasing cost of living in the UK and around the world, levels of food insecurity have risen. This means that even if people are educated on how to make a nutritious meal, they may have little choice but to opt for the cheapest, most convenient and least “healthy” option. If someone is using convenience food out of necessity, adding calories to a menu is unlikely to change their decision-making process, as they may have no other options.
We as a society often criticize parents who feed their children “junk” food, but we give little consideration to why some parents may do so. If you’re a single parent, having just worked a night shift and with no time or money to prepare a nutritious meal, providing your child with a meal high in calories is likely to keep them full for longer—more calories in this scenario is a good thing.
Those who struggle with body image and eating disorders are also likely to feel guilt as a result of this new ruling. The eating disorder charity, Beat, argues that having calories on menus has the potential to exacerbate eating disorders of all kinds. This is particularly worrying, as during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, calls to eating disorders services also increased, meaning at the tail end of the pandemic, this ruling is likely going to impact those who are at their most vulnerable. Given that eating outside the comfort of one’s own home for people who struggle with eating disorders is often a milestone toward getting better—an immensely brave thing to do in the first place—this can be a big setback for those in recovery.
Although there are many convincing arguments as to why putting calories on menus is a terrible idea, it’s so important to remember the point that food can be about joy too. On your birthday, you should be able to eat cake and not worry about how it may affect your weight. When you have a bad day at work, you should be able to cheer yourself up with your favorite chocolate bar and celebrate a promotion at work with a splash-out meal with friends and family. Everyone deserves the right to simply enjoy food, and putting calories on menus presents a challenge to embracing the joy that food gives us.
The solutions to help people make “better” choices around food is complicated, but it can be argued that any of the benefits found from listing calories on menus are outweighed by the potential harm. Making healthier options accessible and ensuring people are paid enough to afford to eat healthily would be a good place to start.