Calories on menus – is it a good idea?

I wanted to take time to consider my thoughts on calories being visible on menus. I tried to write an official blog but couldn’t articulate myself in a way I was happy with. So here’s a relaxed social media post that’s long enough to be a blog (amazing how the brain works!).

Calories on menus

On Wednesday 6th April 2022, in the UK, it came into law that all eateries with over 250 employees must reveal the calorie content of meals on their menus. The legislation had been passed as part of the UK Government’s plan to “tackle the obesity crisis” and help us consume fewer calories when eating out.

So although this is a pro-health action from the Government, the policy has been met with a barrage of mixed emotions, views and arguments, for and against seeing calories on menus.

I’ve taken a week to consider the change and listen to other people’s points of view. I’ve also eaten out a couple of times so I can experience how I feel before I tried to articulate my thoughts.

As someone who battled with disordered eating in their late teens, followed by a decade of calorie counting (which some would class as disordered eating still, but we will leave that there), I now support people to lose weight without restriction, or tracking. So how do I feel about calories on menus?

There are many pros and cons but here’s my top 10…

Pros:

  1. Meal-for-meal the restaurant version of a recipe will be higher in calories than if it was cooked at home so it can be hard for people to judge what they are choosing when eating out. 
  2. Eateries may now rethink some of their recipes to support healthier meals and reduce the use of, and quantities of, sugar, salt, and unhealthy (inflammatory) fats.
  3. Having access to calorie information can be beneficial to those trying to lose weight without avoiding restaurants altogether.
  4. Revealing the calories may reduce the likelihood of overeating or over-ordering which could have a positive impact on health, food waste and the wallet!
  5. There is a concern about the general population’s increasing body weight which does impact overall health and increase the risk of other diseases (as evidenced in science).

Cons:

  1. Calories are only one part of the bigger picture when we consider the nutritional benefits of a meal.
  2. Healthy options including avocado and oily fish (salmon) could be avoided for something with fewer nutrients due to the calorie content.
  3. Seeing the calorie of each meal can be very triggering for those who are experiencing, or have experienced, disordered eating or an eating disorder, increasing their need for mental health support.
  4. Social settings (aka meals out) should be a place to relax and enjoy yourself and make choices based on taste, hunger signals and the cultural aspect of sharing food.
  5. People who weren’t aware of calories before may now become overly conscious of them, which could turn what was a healthy relationship with food into an unhealthy one.

A lack of insight and info is at the heart of a lot of health issues. However, providing the calories of a meal cannot be considered informative, in my opinion – it provides limited information when we consider the nutritional value of food. Equally, the relevance of calories could be quite meaningless for many people, which leaves a big gap of knowledge still to fill (and I’m all for filling it!).

Choosing the smallest number on the menu doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the healthiest option. For example, in most cases, a salmon salad is going to be higher in calories than a chicken salad because salmon contains more fat and fat has more calories per gram. But which one is going to serve you better? Well, naturally it depends on the person but I know 9/10 I’d choose the salmon salad because of the benefits of those omega 3 fatty acids on satiety, inflammation, brain health, skin health, immune system etc. etc.

I am concerned that this element of choosing a meal will be lost as the numbers become difficult for people to ignore.

Even for my 12-year-old son.

My Yorkshire born son was reading a menu this weekend. Usually, if he couldn’t decide, he would always choose the cheapest option (like a true Yorkshireman). However, this weekend he chose the one with fewer calories.

He. Is. 12!

He does not have a weight or health concern!

He does not need to consider calories!

But he couldn’t escape the numbers on the menu (and for those who say ‘just ignore them’, haven’t understood how the brain works or, more specifically, how his high-functioning autistic brain works).

It broke my heart and reminded me of my past disordered eating and the desire I had to feel hungry and not answer it. To not listen to my body.

I spend my days with clients, hosting workshops, speaking to groups about tuning into your body, listening, learning and nourishing. I do this and I specialise in weight loss. 

So do I agree with calories on menus… hmmm… I can understand why it has happened and I believe some people will benefit from it. But I am concerned that it will negatively impact others.

Importantly, I think the Government have missed another big opportunity to provide education on nutrition beyond calories (way beyond!) that would help the UK to really improve the health of its citizens.

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