Compulsory Calorie Counts: More Harm Than Good?

TW: eating disorders and disordered food habits

An opinion piece by Francesca Ionescu.

You’re sixteen and it’s your best friend’s birthday. You go to one of the chain restaurants, the one that has mirrors on every wall and chandeliers keeping everything dim and misty. You can’t drink yet, so you’re all having fruity mocktails or lemonade-only mojitos, dressed up nicely along the long table. You’re all here, laughing and enjoying your night out, and yet you only remember the plates and the guilt, and your friend hugging you because she knows – like a lot of people your age – she knows how you feel.

I used to shy away from personal input on the topic of eating disorders (EDs for simplicity’s sake), because their main characteristics are being competitive and comparative. EDs are mathematical, and one number that triggers them is the calorie count. Naturally, this means the Government has made it a rule that restaurants in England employing more than 250 people must display the calorie count on their menus next to the food or drink item. This has been pushed under the guise od tackling obesity and type 2 diabetes, but that seems like a very lazy cop-out instead of addressing the root of the problem.

Even ignoring the possible disorder trigger, the plan will very likely not affect obesity numbers, as restaurants are rarely someone’s main source of nutrition. Having unhealthy eating habits will not be miraculously fixed by choosing a salad or a lower-calorie option when out for a meal, and it will only serve those who are already on planned diets, often not the class that needs help tackling obesity. Obesity can only start being tackled with better financial support for struggling families, as well as with more of an emphasis on food education, as the most deprived areas have almost double the obesity rates from the least deprived ones, according to the Royal College of Physicians London.

Going out to eat with your family, friends or co-workers is a social thing, where the food should be added joy and not a task. If we take the classic ‘think-of-the-children’ view, how is it a positive change to teach them that eating is a task, meant to change their body rather than help it run? Obesity will not be cured with one low-calorie meal, so who are these measures meant to help?

The eating disorder aspect is both the hardest and the easiest to push, because of how the disorders are portrayed in media: conventionally attractive girls throwing up and looking perfect after, no puffiness, no dizziness, the disorder more of an aesthetic choice than an illness that affects all aspects of life, especially the social aspect. But real-life is harder to glamourise: eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition, affecting between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK, of which 25% are men (according to priorygroup.com). The societal perception of eating disorders often ignores men and older people; it ignores the young boys who you never see eating in school, ignores the gym boys logging every calorie they eat into their smartphone, or the mums that eat different meals from their children and compare sizes with their teenage daughters. A big step in recovery is leaving the support group and eating in public, tackling the anxiety of enjoying food. Calories are already available on supermarket food, most fast-food places and even the Wetherspoons app, so adding it to all chain restaurants just makes crucial recovery steps even more challenging.

My personal input will not over-power the facts, but this topic shouldn’t over-look real people and the effect on their lives. Considering myself recovered for a while, I still slip; I still check labels, still ignore my body telling me what it needs. My teenage years are filled with these memories, with moments when I was just wishing I could behave normally, with seeing my friends try to comfort me and the rest of us that were not doing so well, with seeing how guilty and clueless my parents were, and I don’t think I would have recovered if I had these measures every-time I tried to be kinder to myself.

Healthy eating matters but reducing it all down to calories is too much of an un-educated approach, and truly disappointing from a government with access to so many resources and so much research. Everyone’s experience is different, and this number is subjective in its harm, because it won’t make much of a difference for someone that has not yet recovered or someone whose health issues are caused by habits, but it can be so detrimental for someone on the edge of rehabilitation. Food should be enjoyable, other people’s company should be a pleasure, and there’s no number, be it the one on a menu or a scale, that should stop these important moments we have with each other.