With the announcement last month that restaurants with more than 250 staff must print the calories of each dish on their menus, campaigners from both sides of the debate have spoken out about the measures. The government believes these measures will help people tackle the problem of obesity. Obesity-related issues currently cost the NHS £6.1 billion a year and minister Jo Churchill says calorie information on labels makes it “easier to make healthier choices.” Eating disorder charities have disparaged the move, arguing it could worsen the recovery of those suffering from these conditions.
The government enacted the changes in order to decrease rates of obesity, especially in groups such as young people where a third of children are leaving primary school classified as obese or overweight. The expectation is that these measures lead to a healthier population less susceptible to disease.
Critics of the changes point to the harmful effects calorie labels can have on those recovering from or suffering from eating disorders. The government has expressed they consulted with experts on eating disorders “extensively” regarding the changes Beat, the leading charity in the UK regarding eating disorders, disagrees with these changes. There is evidence, they say, to suggest calorie information on labels can increase distress and anxiety in people suffering from eating disorders. Even hospitality figures have weighed in, citing the measures as likely to increase costs and lead to “boring, box-ticking cooking”.
If the government’s aims are to ensure people are consuming a more balanced diet the measures could be construed as virtue-signalling. Experts also point out that for those who are already obese calorie labels make little difference. Food is often bought out from restaurants, cafés and takeaways due to its ease of access. While this food is rarely as nutritious as home-cooked meals, the government fails to account for the lack of time many in modern society have to cook. With people working longer hours and wages shrinking, cooking healthy meals is becoming harder for the employed. Lack of time coupled with the increased cost of living means people are less likely to spend on more expensive, nourishing food. With most households stretched, calorie labels may not make any difference
It remains to be seen whether the measures will result in any concrete improvements in the nation’s health. For opposers to the changes, it is clear they believe the impact on those with eating disorders will be painful and the measures unlikely to improve things for them. Some in hospitality are taking measures into their own hands, with some restaurants providing menus without calorie information present.