During Mental Health Awareness week, the Government introduced plans to add calorie labels onto menus. Lippy examines why this is such a huge issue. TW: disordered eating, calorie counting.
Yesterday, a briefing note which accompanied the Queen’s Speech stated that the Government will introduce secondary legislation “to require large out-of-home sector businesses with 250 or more employees to calorie label the food they sell.”
It goes without saying that forcing restaurants, pubs and cafes to calorie label their menus is thoroughly insensitive and massively disappointing. What’s worse is that this announcement was made on Tuesday 11 May: day two of Mental Health Awareness Week.
From diet culture to fatphobia, calorie counting provokes a multitude of toxic behaviours. Institutionalising it as a practice will metastasise these behaviours; it will exacerbate the problem of disordered eating across the country.
According to eating disorder charity BEAT, approximately 1.25 million people in the UK currently have an eating disorder. The news that the government is introducing compulsory calorie counts in restaurants will be devastating for every one of these people. And yet, in spite of the likelihood of this triggering relapse and inhibiting recovery for people with eating disorders, the Government have no plan to rectify, nor have they addressed, the underfunding of UK eating disorder services.
The introduction of compulsory calorie counting could also prompt people who do not already suffer with disordered eating to develop a preoccupation with calories: a preoccupation which could descend into an eating disorder extremely quickly. This legislation ultimately has the potential to lead to more developing eating disorders: something which seems entirely at odds with the Government’s alleged aim to “protect the health and wellbeing of the nation” and to “improve mental health”.
Supposedly, the purpose of calorie labels on menus is to tackle obesity. There is overwhelming evidence to prove that calorie counting is not an effective solution to the obesity epidemic, but it would seem that rather than confronting the wider factors that affect public health - stress, lack of free time, poverty, mental ill-health and ironically Government-induced lockdown to name a few - calorie shaming the nation is the Government’s short-sighted strategy of choice.
The introduction of calorie labelling on menus does little more than add a value judgement to food, designed to shame customers into caloric restriction. In other words, this is shaming individuals for the state of public health. It is at best unproductive victim blaming, and at worst unbelievably dangerous.
Not only will calorie labels diminish the joy of eating out for many people, but they will also compromise the social value of eating out. Therefore, it’s not unlikely for the introduction of this legislation to be detrimental for the hospitality sector. The Government have effectively invoked a method to ward off potential customers when businesses need them the most, as these plans are being announced immediately as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.
Obesity and eating disorders are both pertinent social issues, and the Government cannot solve one with the sacrifice of the other. Despite being thinly veiled as an attempt to improve public health, this legislation will do nothing but exacerbate the mental health crisis. The irony of its announcement during Mental Health Awareness Week only speaks to the thoughtlessness, insensitivity and contempt implicit within it.
If you or someone you know needs help with any of the issues raised in this article, here are some organisations that may help you:
BEAT eating disorders: call 0808 801 0677 or chat online with a helpline volunteer by following this link.
Leeds Uni Nightline Services: call 0113 380 1285 or chat online with a helpline volunteer by following this link.
Samaritans: call 116 123 or chat online with a helpline volunteer by following this link.
Words by Alice Graham