Five reasons why mandatory calorie labelling on menus will be damaging to our health (and five things you can do about it).

The UK government has decided that mandatory calorie labelling on restaurant menus will “help the public to make healthier choices when eating out”. As a Registered Nutritionist, this is not evidence based and worse, will be damaging to our health and here’s why…

  1. Mandatory labelling takes away our autonomy and right to choose what information we want to see. Information should be available to those that request it rather than a blanket approach which has the potential to do harm.
  2. The calorie content of food is not neutral information and will come with consequences. It is damaging to those working to heal a disordered relationship with food and survivors of eating disorders when eating out can be an important part of recuperation.
  3. Calorie labelling reduces food to just its energy content when nutrition is so much more than this. It lacks any consideration for the reasons why we eat out – whether that be for fun, celebration or necessity. Generally speaking, we don’t eat out to then have to over-think and micro-manage what we choose.
  4. Reporting calories further erodes our natural intuitive relationship with our hunger and appetite cues. Let’s say you really fancy fish and chips and nothing else looks good to you on the menu – who is going to feel they can make that choice when it is possibly the most energy dense dish? Now add in the difficulties you may feel if you are deemed to be higher than average weight. Focussing on energy is inherently fat phobic which adds to discrimination – what is healthy about stigma?
  5. Above all, there is no evidence that this information is useful (which includes the traffic light system on products) or even accurate. But there is evidence that focussing on calorie numbers and even just thinking about restricting food leads to weight cycling, eating disorders and poor health.

What can you do?

  1. Continue to eat at smaller eateries – the regulations are likely to apply to those larger businesses with more than 250 employees, so this is a great opportunity to support independent restaurants.
  2. Protect children from viewing calorie numbers on menus if you can, to preserve their intuitive relationship with food. Avoid discussing numbers and focus on what they look forward to tasting and enjoying.
  3. If you are reconnecting with your own intuitive eating skills, ask someone to read the menu to you or tell them what you fancy and see if they can suggest something for you so you can avoid the calorie numbers.
  4. Rebel! When you’re craving your favourite restaurant food (and who isn’t at the moment) then eat it! Building resilience to this nonsense (as well as resisting it) is unfortunately a big part of what I help my clients do.
  5. Write to your MP – BEAT, the eating disorders charity, are calling for ‘public health not public shaming’ and have drafted a letter you can use to write to your MP.

Above all, senseless legislation such as this completely misses a critical understanding of what makes us un-healthy (economic disparities and social inequalities) and pushes the responsibility back onto the individual.

In the meantime, keep eating and keep enjoying – and get support if you can.