I’m a little late to the conversation on this topic (it’s been a busy week), but, following a few requests, here are some of my thoughts on the issue of calories on menus.
If you are not already aware, from the 6th April 2022 it became mandatory in England for restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees to ‘clearly and prominently’ list the calories of food and beverage items on the menu (including on online platforms where you might order a delivery). They are also required to state that ‘adult’s need around 2,000 calories a day’ (which is not exactly accurate – more on this later). While right now this is only impacting those larger and chain outlets, there is also some suggestion that these rules will be reviewed within the next 5 years, and at that point potentially rolled out to smaller businesses as well.
This government-led action is part of the ever problematic ‘war on obesity’ as the powers that be attempt to ‘tackle obesity’ based upon gross over simplification, poor information, and quite frankly a heck of a lot of weight stigma. The basic assumption being made is that, by listing calories on menus, the general public might make lower calorie food choices – and that businesses will work to lower the calorie content of some dishes – ultimately resulting in fewer people being classed as ‘obese’.
This is not how any of this works.
You might choose now to imagine me having a giant tantrum of frustration and considering moving to a small tropical island away from all of the nonsense – while I try to compose myself enough to start to explain why this is such an issue.
There are actually numerous issues with this situation we now find ourselves in – and I am only going to get to briefly touch on the points here. As is always fair to say with topics here, “it’s complicated”. In short, the issues relate to those currently living in bigger bodies, those with (or with a history of, or at risk of) an Eating Disorder, and then to the otherwise general public. So, basically everyone.
Let’s try and break this down.
There are MANY reasons why some folks live in higher weight bodies. This might be down to genetics, medical conditions, life choices, life circumstances, Eating Disorders and disordered eating, and….wait for it…. dieting. This is obviously far too much to attempt to unpack in one blog post but the important point here is that almost none of these factors would be helped by placing calories on menus, yet some of them might be worsened.
Just in case you didn’t already know, your body size and shape is somewhere between 40 and 70% predetermined by your genetics. Body weight is NOT as simple as the food on your plate, and the movement that you do…..and, even if it was that simple, there isn’t anything SIMPLE about the food on your plate, and the movement you do!
When we over simplify the extended explanation of the above to “eat less, move more”, and thus find ourselves with a plan to enforce calories being placed on menus we reinforce the false belief that thin people are healthy, and those in bigger bodies are not. We also reduce health and body size (which sometimes are, and sometimes are not actually linked) to “calories in, calories out”. What an ableist, privileged, yet under-educated assumption to perpetuate!
People of all shapes and sizes can of course be unhealthy or healthy. It’s possible to be thin and have high cholesterol, to “look healthy” but barely be able to walk to the end of the garden, and to be in a bigger body and have no relevant health concerns and be more than able to run a marathon.
There is SO much more to be said on this – but without digressing too far from the main issue of the post (calories on menus): Weight is only a small element of health and calories are only a small factor in body size.
Our bodies are not all the same, we don’t all specifically need 2000 calories. Your nutritional and caloric needs are individual to you and are a combination of genetics, fitness, muscle mass, amount of movement, amount of stress, metabolism, medical conditions and more. Think about a body as a little like a car – how much petrol fills the tank, and how many miles the car can then travel on that petrol varies vastly from model to model AND is dependent on how you drive it and maintain it.
The nuances of this topic are ones on which only a small number of us appear to be educated. So, the result of placing calories on menus is that we are going to further reinforce an over simplified view of nutrition and of health.
In terms of those with an Eating Disorder, and in recovery from an Eating Disorder the calories on menus are also going to be exceptionally triggering. Irrespective of the body size of a person with an Eating Disorder, part of the recovery process means learning to not obsess about food, to not strictly count calories or limit foods, to be able to enjoy a meal for its taste, to be able to eat in a restaurant with family or friends, to remove any moral attribution to food, and ultimately to see it as a small element of health (so, the truth then?). Calories on menus will make all of these tasks much harder.
People in recovery from Eating Disorders are either going to need even more support to manage coping with calories being EVERYWHERE, or they are going to feel excluded from certain eating settings where the calories are listed.
I think it is safe to say that calories on menus may very well even contribute to the development of more Eating Disorders and disordered eating, as well as causing relapses in some already well established in recovery. This is not just due to the addition of the black and white numbers on menus, but because we are also likely to hear EVEN MORE of the toxic diet culture talk of “look how many calories are in that”, “I can’t eat that it’s too fattening” etc., all of which just keep further compounding the current misinformation which leads to the unhealthy dieting behaviours and disordered eating that I’ve barely been able to cover in this already lengthy blog post.
It’s genuinely possible that you, reading this right now, perhaps with no history of an Eating Disorder, could start to see calories on menus and slowly but surely find yourself becoming more and more obsessed with calories, and food – to ultimately be diagnosed with an Eating Disorder and need extensive therapy and support: to have your life and your physical and emotional health destroyed for months, or even years.
Kids today are going to see the calories on menus and grow up thinking that the units of energy in a food item are what is most important – despite the fact that says nothing about actual nutritional value.
It feels to me as if the Government are saying “it doesn’t matter if you have, or develop an Eating Disorder, we just want you to be thin”, “thin is more important than healthy and happy”. I actually don’t think this is their genuine intention, I think they are just buying into false beliefs about health and weight that has been fed to them by the diet industry and the media throughout their entire lives. I think they are trying to solve a complex issue, with a super-oversimplified solution. They want to be seen to be taking action.
It’s not an excuse, but I’m attempting to ground myself here as an educator rather than just rant away and be angry.
So, instead how about teaching people about the complex reality of the body which they live in? How about teaching people how to care for their physical and mental health in truly meaningful and balanced ways? Maybe we could even teach people to understand that weight says very little about a person, or their health?
There is SO much more to say on all of this – but, suffice it to say, I do not support calories being on menus and I am preparing for the massive harmful impacts which I am ALREADY hearing people talking about.
Are there any specific areas touched on here that you’d like me to talk about more? Let me know in the comments.