Putting calories on menus won’t solve obesity, but it will harm those of us with eating disorders | Clare Finney


There was a time when counting my calorie intake was as easy as breathing. Though practically innumerate in maths classes, I could quickly tot up the calories I’d resisted, succumbed to and burned in a day. If restaurants and cafes had revealed the calories in their dishes, it would have played straight into my 16-year-old determination to whittle away my already whippet-like body. For the 1.25 million men and women with eating disorders in the UK, eating out is about to become even more stressful than it already is. From today, cafes, restaurants and takeaways in England with more than 250 employees will have to display the calorie information of all food and drink they prepare for customers.

This is part of the government’s wider strategy to help people who are overweight or obese, a category that includes almost two-thirds of adults in England and one in three children leaving primary school. In theory, this sounds like a simple solution: if customers who are watching their weight know a chicken katsu curry and a side of fried gyoza at Wagamama’s adds up to 1,224 calories, they might order differently. In practice, like most simple solutions, calorie labelling doesn’t really work.

For proof of this, we need only look to the US, where calorie labels have been mandated on the menus of large chains since 2018. Despite this, Americans are still getting fatter. At best, studies suggest people quickly stopped noticing the small, joy-sapping number next to their favourite order. At worst – as it transpired in New York City, where such labels have been in place since 2008 – it seems they go for broke when presented with calorie counts, choosing dishes with more calories, not fewer.

The failure of such policies can be accounted for in many ways, from the role a person’s genetics plays in weight gain to the addictive quality of high-calorie foods and the economic and social factors that make obesity a systemic rather than an individual problem. As Stuart Flint, an associate professor of the psychology of obesity at Leeds University and a director of Obesity UK, recently told the Observer: “Obesity is very complex. If it was as simple as eating less or more, people wouldn’t gain weight to the extent we have at the moment, and people would be able to lose weight more easily.” You would hope this policy would be founded on reliable evidence and the support of people like Flint.

Yet rather than tackling obesity, the main effect of calorie labelling may simply be to induce anxiety and stress in already vulnerable people. It’s been years since I struggled with eating disorders, but only because, like any recovering addict, I’m meticulous about putting preventive measures in place. I have a therapist. I’m open about my experiences. I have friends and family I can look to if I’m struggling. I never weigh myself, or take waist measurements – and I never, ever count calories, focusing instead on flavour and nutrition.

And I’m recovering – recovered, even, though the threat of regression continues to worry me, as it does all former sufferers. I can all too easily imagine how those coping with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating might feel when confronted with a calorie label at a restaurant with family or friends. When I was unwell, restaurants were a rare and special refuge; a place where, because I couldn’t easily count them, calories were off the table. The regret would kick in soon after, but for those few precious hours in Pizza Express Pinner or ASK Northwood, my weight worries were outweighed by the company, atmosphere and sense of occasion.

It pains me to think that this brief, light relief will be taken away from people like me. The number of people with eating disorders in the UK is rising sharply as a result of the isolation and anxiety wrought by Covid-19. During long lockdowns, many former sufferers saw the disease they thought they had put to bed return. Mental illness can be easily triggered by changes in your environment: big changes, like a global pandemic, and seemingly small ones, like calorie labels on menus. While the new regulations permit restaurants to provide menus without calories “where the consumer expressly requests it, the assumptions behind this concession are deeply flawed.

It assumes the businesses will have such a menu; that staff will know to offer it; that a customer will know to ask for it; and that a pathologically compulsive counter of calories will ask for this special menu, in front of their family, colleagues or friends. It is a cruel irony that those who would ideally take note of calorie labels will eventually ignore them, while those who should ignore them will have to fight every instinct in order to do so. With this new policy, those of us who are at risk of being affected by calorie labelling on menus stand to lose an awful lot more than weight.

  • Clare Finney is a food writer

  • BEAT’s advice on eating out with calorie labelling is here

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