Why Calorie Counts on Menus Can Do More Harm than Good

With the news that the government has proposed a calorie count on menus, one writer examines the detrimental effects the initiative could have on eating disorder recovery and fatphobia

Feature by Chloë Maughan | 13 Nov 2018
  • Why Calorie Counts on Menus Can Do More Harm than Good

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Like many women, I have had a chequered relationship with food. I embarked on my first diet when I was just ten years old, promised by Kellogg's that I could drop a dress size in two weeks. In my teenage years my attention switched to calories. I found myself obsessively tracking my intake and weighing myself a few times a day. I could recite the calorie count of common foods without pausing for thought. My obsessive calorie counting never made me thin, but it did make me miserable and prone to fainting spells. I have lived my life at the intersection of fatness and disordered eating, viewing my body in torturous ways, thoughts consumed by images of the ways I could scold it and remould it. It’s for these reasons that I was horrified to hear about proposals to get calorie labelling on menus in UK restaurants – an initiative that seems completely disconnected from the realities of living with or recovering from eating disorders, and from women who walk the world fat.

The Department for Health has proposed making calorie counts on menus a legal requirement, a bid currently supported by Diabetes UK within its Food Upfront Campaign. This is not a novel initiative – similar strategies have already been employed in the US. Proponents suggest these public health initiatives could significantly reduce obesity; however, research testing their effectiveness suggests they may not be so transformative. While a US study found that when participants were given a calorie count on menus, calorie consumption was reduced by an average of 45 calories per meal, it was estimated that “over a three-year period, the calorie cut would lead to weight loss in the range of one pound.” Now, I’m no weight loss expert, but it strikes me that losing one pound in three years is an incredibly low bar for success. But the problem with these initiatives goes beyond their holey evidence base, and to their potential to harm eating disorder recovery and pander to dangerous fatphobic rhetoric.

I spoke to Charlotte Wiseman, who grew up with eating disorders, about how she feels people may be impacted by the initiative. Wiseman worries displaying calorie counts could disrupt recovery for people with conditions like bulimia and anorexia, as treatment plans often encourage individuals to avoid using numbers to guide their eating to help restore intuitive eating and reduce obsessive thinking. “I had to avoid Pret, as they display calories, and I’d find myself gravitating towards the low calorie choices,” she tells me. But there’s also a risk that numbers oversimplify and consequently obfuscate nutritional information: “A focus on numbers leads to people regarding foods as 'bad' because they don’t always know how to interpret the information.” She worries that emphasis on limited indicators like calories can actually feed into misinformation around healthy eating, with focus on low calorie numbers compounding the belief that a high number means a food is 'bad'. This dichotomised view of food as 'good' or 'bad' can feed in to food guilt that can trigger or worsen eating disorders. 

However, criticism of proposals to make calorie information more readily available is not unanimous. Polly Hale, who suffered from anorexia, found that having calorie information more readily available makes eating more relaxing. “A therapist would say that’s giving into the ED (eating disorder) but if I don’t know the calories, I undereat ‘just in case.’ I eat better when I’m in control,” she says. Hale’s account suggests there may be mileage in a middle ground that allows individuals to more readily access calorie information, but without forcing it into the consciousness of anyone who looks at a menu (an example of such an approach would be making labelled menus available upon request).

Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, argue that the initiative could heighten risk among those vulnerable to eating disorders, with calorie labelling having the potential to “exacerbate eating disorders of all kinds.” Data has shown that exposure to calorie content when selecting meals can lead to individuals with anorexia or bulimia consuming fewer calories. As Charlotte Wiseman and Beat attest, mandatory calorie labelling brings with it a risk of over-policing that could prove detrimental to individuals with disordered eating. And this risk doesn’t just extend to the ED community – it could also carry harmful consequences for fat people.

Fat people already experience body policing in public space. They regularly experience hostility, fatphobia and judgement around food choices that can see them categorised as a 'good' or 'bad' fat person depending on what they order. Many fat people experience weight shaming in public. In 2015, there were reports of fat women receiving cards on the London Underground, telling the reader they "disapprove of" and "hate" fat people. As a result of instances like these, many fat people already live with anxieties around being a fat person in public spaces.

I’ve experienced a great deal of this myself. In 2014, my weight ballooned as a result of a medication change, that saw me go from a calorie obsessed size 12 to a size 20. In a matter of months, I went from living with body issues, to living in a body that was seemingly always an issue to someone else.

Being a fat person is to be at the intersection of invisibility and hypervisibility. Invisible in advertising, representation and art, yet hypervisible when it comes to public space. There is no corner of my life that goes unpoliced, with strangers seemingly viewing my body as a subject for public commentary. I have had strangers yell fatphobic comments at me from rolled-down car windows. I avoid cashiers in supermarkets, worried they’ll comment on the contents of my basket. I fear strangers taking pictures of me in the gym to share on Snapchat because these experiences are happening every day. With my decisions already over-policed, I fear a world in which calorie labelling is fed to us in restaurants, so that it becomes another arena in which strangers will feel entitled to comment on my body and my choices. I worry that this proposal, sponsored by our government, could support anti-fatness rhetoric that doesn’t need any more weight behind it.

The government’s calorie counting proposal is short-sighted in this regard. While it’s pitched at improving public health, the initiative could have significant physical and mental health implications for anyone with a history of disordered eating or anyone viewed by society as too big. And, if the evidence of earlier initiatives is anything to go by, it could harm more people than waistlines it will trim.