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Will having the calorie content of our meals on menus actually tackle the obesity epidemic?

Not all calories are equal, so is there any benefit in disclosing the energy value of our dinner, and can it help slow the obesity epidemic?

It’s not long until we’ll be met with shrieking across the Five Guys counter: “1,509 calories for a large fries?!”, when out for a fast food treat. 

From April 6 restaurants and food businesses with 250+ employees will be mandated by law to display the calorie content of food and drinks items on their menus. 

With 63 per cent of UK adults overweight or obese, and an accelerating rate of children leaving primary school overweight, this radical legislation forms the latest government bid to tackle the obesity epidemic. But what are the pros and cons of this legislative approach? 

The upcoming legislation focuses solely on the calorie content of food and drinks. Calories (kcal) are a measure of the energy content of food, and counting them is a simple way to track how much we’re consuming. Having easy access to nutrition information is essential to helping individuals make informed food choices. However, solely concentrating messaging around calorie counting as a weight management tool to help the population track their food intake may be short-sighted. 

Calories consumed via a head of broccoli compared to those from a block of butter have vastly different nutritional compositions. And so they will have distinctly different impacts on the body, from influencing your level of satiety to impacting the trillions of microorganisms that make up your gut microbiota.

Calories from different food groups are also metabolised differently and so have different caloric availability – meaning the number of calories displayed next to a dish on a menu won’t technically represent the number we can utilise in our bodies, nor does it represent the quality of the calories we’re eating – whether these come from fibre or fat. 

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This is a key notion behind Dr Giles Yeo’s book Why Calories Don’t Count, which stresses how we should consider the types and quality of the foods we’re eating, as opposed to just fixating on its energy content.

Focusing on calories bypasses conversation on the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals essential for our body’s health. For instance, a banana and a packet of Wotsits have the same calorie ranking. One of these contributes to your five a day, provides fibre and essential vitamins and minerals; the other contributes very little besides a sprinkle of flavour enhancers and salt.

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There is a concern that calorie signposts will overshadow messaging around health and the nutritional quality of the foods we’re choosing to eat. Granting a ‘halo effect’ to lower-calorie dishes may also produce inconsistent messaging to individuals suffering from certain medical conditions.

Calorie consumption is not indicative of our overall health. Counting calories also won’t necessarily make you healthier. Yes, a Wagamama’s Chilli Chicken Ramen might be 392kcal shy of a Chicken Katsu Curry, but it still contains 105 per cent of your daily recommended salt intake.

With children and teenagers set to grow up eating in restaurants using calorie counts, the incoming legislation should be supplemented by the introduction of updated and strengthened food and nutrition education within schools. 

Growing up acknowledging and utilising calorie information may be extremely effective for the health of future generations. However, we are currently passing down a broken food system, where unhealthy foods are cheaper per calorie than healthy foods, and dining out is to be framed around calorie counting and constructs of weight management, which is disconcerting. Further education for the wider population will help individuals navigate and tailor calorie information to their own health goals to drive clear, constructive changes in food behaviour. 

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Displaying calories on menus is also set to have a destructive impact on those living with eating disorders. It’s estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK are currently living with an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Simply stopping for a morning coffee will now subject those suffering or recovering from an eating disorder to a distressing and detrimental environment.

The regulation is set to be disruptive, whether it produces a beneficial impact or not. As a public health initiative, providing individuals with point-of-purchase nutrition information is promising in shifting food behaviours and allowing more informed decisions when eating out. But it will undoubtedly have various negative effects on millions of individuals with eating disorders. 

The promotion of overall health (both physical and mental) and the quality of our diets is arguably of greater importance than the number of calories we consume. As Dr Yeo said: “If you focus on health, your weight will take care of itself.”

Sofia Antona is a nutritionist and food blogger, follow on Instagram

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