Eating out is an indulgence – so is putting calorie counts on menus doomed to fail? | Health


Everything I am, I owe to calories, as Sophia Loren never quite said. I have built myself, one edible unit of energy at a time. In truth I have more than built myself. I am over-engineered, in the way Mussolini’s Milan railway station is over-engineered, or Jason Momoa is over-engineered. See how deftly I compare myself to Momoa? We are exactly the same, him and me. Save that every calorie he consumes turns into a plank of rippling muscle, while mine turn into the greatest muffin top this side of the Greggs cake counter. But it’s all flesh, right?

Ah, calories. Mostly I try to ignore them; to regard them as I do the isobars on a meteorologist’s map which in no way describe the experience of standing outside in a howling gale. I know that not all calories are equal; that calories from carbs impact the body differently to those obtained from protein, for example. I also know that we all process foods differently. I have a metabolism that suggests I may at some point have been gene-spliced with a sloth, and hence spend hours in the gym brutalising myself. I also like my dinner very much. I regard the diet book industry as a massive scam. If a single diet book worked there would be no need to publish another one ever again. But still they come.

All of this means I should regard the introduction in April of mandatory calorie counts on the menus offered by all hospitality businesses with 250 employees or more as worthy of nothing more than a theatrical shrug. I don’t think of it that way. I find the prospect extremely dispiriting. Eating out is meant to be an indulgence, even when it isn’t a splendid parade of chips, gravy and custard-drenched puddings. It’s meant to be a pleasure. And it is very hard to indulge yourself in pleasure when the metrics arising from your behaviour are being thrown in your face all the time. It’s a bit like going to an orgy only to find it’s being patrolled by an army of nurses armed with swabs and petri dishes. I imagine.

Which, of course, is the whole point of the new legislation. Obesity costs the UK £6.1bn a year, rising to £9.7bn by 2050. We clearly need to do something about it. The question is whether this new legislation will help. The evidence that calorie counts on menus change behaviour is scant. One recent US study found that calorie consumption falls initially, before gently rising back to previous levels.

It does, however, have other impacts. In 2012 major high street brands including KFC, Costa Coffee and Pizza Hut, representing 9,500 outlets, signed up to a voluntary initiative led by Public Health England to introduce calorie counts. That led in turn to major activity behind the scenes. The companies that supply cakes to the big high street coffee shops are now constantly being told to reduce the calorie counts on new products and to revise existing ones. The great likelihood is that all the restaurants newly landed on planet calorie count will be doing something similar.

Alternatively, they’ll take advantage of one exclusion in the legislation: “specials”, those dishes on the menu for 30 days or less, do not need to be calorie counted. So expect to see a huge expansion in temporary items or small adjustments to existing dishes every 29 days to make them suddenly new and – whaddya know? – exempt. And expect to read about me ordering loads of them. It will be an act of self-delusion, but I am more than capable of that.

jay.rayner@observer.co.uk

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