TW: Discussion of eating disorders
On 6 April 2022, the UK government introduced new legislation that made it compulsory for all large food businesses (with more than 250 employees) to display calorie labels across all their menus.
While the aim of this legislation is to reduce obesity rates, which include 28 per cent of the adult population, many people have spoken about how this is taking the wrong approach to solving this national issue.
Katie Lips, CEO and Founder of Love Yourself and Lose Weight, is someone who used to be obese at 17 stone in her 30s and has since gone on a weight loss journey which brought her down to 10 stone. In her experience, this journey had to do with emotions a lot more than dieting and calorie counting.
"It’s not because of stupidity that people are overweight," she says. "It’s other factors, it can be depression, it can be anxiety, it can be different eating disorders around comfort eating, it can be a whole host of things, but it isn’t because we don’t know how many calories are in things."
"I think what it does for people who are overweight and miserable about being overweight, is it makes them feel really emotionally worse about themselves."
The legislation can also be a harmful setback to people recovering from eating disorders, which is a disorder that, according to a calculation by the charity Beat Eating Disorders, 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from.
Marcelle Rose is a British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) Registered Nutritionist & Health Coach who specialises in digestive health, emotional eating, and eating disorders. She says that calorie labelling can be very triggering for many people, both those with eating disorders or ones that are vulnerable to them and are trying to be more flexible with their food.
"I’ve spoken to so many people in just the last few weeks when the new law has come into place who have said to me that they’ve done a lot of work to move away from that," she says. "They are now going into restaurants and seeing those calories that trigger them and bring up a lot of anxiety."
Rose also mentions how some people automatically imprint the number of calories that are on a menu in their brains so that they always end up associating it with the same meal even when they are at home and trying to be more flexible with food, which is a major setback in their progress.
According to new data released by YouGov on 28 April 2022, younger people between the ages of 18 and 39 are less likely to support the calorie-labelling rule with 41% being opposed to it compared to only 28-35% being opposed from older age groups. This especially affects young women that are 51% opposed to this new rule and believe that it will have a negative impact on people with eating disorders.
Many nutritionists also believe that there is so much more to living a healthy life beyond calorie counting and that there are much better approaches that the government could have taken to create a healthier society.
Penny Weston, a fitness and nutrition expert, believes that restaurants should focus more on creating a bigger picture for health and weight loss by looking at other factors like the amount of protein, fat, etc.
"For example, avocado will be a high-calorie food, but it also has lots of health benefits and is full of healthy fats," she says. "Health-conscious companies could help by telling consumers about the nutritional value of food."
Lips also emphasises that her weight loss journey first and foremost had to do with working on her mental health and emotional issues that influenced her eating habits. When she was overweight, she found that she felt that the GPs did not give her the emotional support that she needed in order to find self-love, which she discovered through her own personal journey.
She says: :I'd like to see more focus on psychological health and the relationship between weight and emotional well-being and I don't see any of that really coming through."
For people that are vulnerable to calorie labels, Rose recommends some methods that can be used to try and protect themselves when eating out at restaurants.
This could be done by asking for a menu without the calories (Wagamama and Dishoom offer that), visiting smaller businesses that don’t have to comply with the legislation, setting a timer to make a decision, or ordering the same meal as the person who is with you instead of having to choose yourself.
Focusing on all the different colours of vegetables in a dish and talking about the nutrition balance like the different vitamins and minerals they contain instead of focusing on calories.
"We should be having pleasure from food," she says. "Often when you go out to eat it’s for a celebration or a social gathering, and to be made to feel guilty or bad about that when it’s supposed to be a joyful experience is not that helpful either."
If you're someone who suffers from eating disorders or unhealthy relationships with food, please see the list of resources that can be used for support.
The FOOD FREEDOM COLLECTIVE - a support group to help beat binge-eating, ditch diets, and live your life.
Beat Eating Disorders - a charity with an e-learning platform that provides tools and education for people with eating disorders.
Mind - a mental health support organisation providing useful contacts and helplines for anyone who has eating problems.