Is publishing calories on menus a case of ‘too much information’?

30/07/20

Diane Hall

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Man holding Menu in front of his face

Boris Johnson - following his battle with coronavirus and the realisation that his weight had an impact on his recovery - has now decided that the UK’s obesity problem requires immediate action. 

Jamie Oliver

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

For years, campaigners such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have badgered the government to introduce policies that could help the population lose weight. They were influential in the introduction of the sugar tax imposed in January 2014, and they will no doubt be pleased with the prime minister’s recent proposals. 


Under Boris’s new proposals, adverts promoting junk/unhealthy food will no longer be broadcast before 9pm, putting commercials about fast-food burgers on the same footing as sex scenes and content featuring violence. 


Another of the government’s initiatives requires restaurants with more than 250 employees to publish the calorific content of the dishes they offer consumers. The intention behind these moves is so that the general public can become more conscious of the food they put into their bodies. 


For people who are genuinely unaware of what constitutes ‘fatty food’, this may prove helpful – particularly when eating out, when rich sauces and extra side dishes can ramp up one’s calorie intake. 


However, considering that we have had - for many years now - a breakdown of the calories, fat and salt, etc. in our food emblazoned across its packaging; that we’re bombarded by more and more diet options as time passes; and given that there is a huge bank of information on the internet covering diet and nutrition, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who have absolutely no idea at all why they’re overweight and that what they’re eating could largely be considered ‘bad choices’.


The vast majority of people who are overweight are acutely aware of the fact. They know that they often make unhealthy, poor choices when it comes to food. But knowing this doesn’t mean they feel like doing anything about it. 


Whilst publishing calories will increase awareness, it’s unlikely to have the significant impact on people’s weight that Johnson hopes. Knowledge is only half the battle. Knowledge doesn’t always result in action.


On the flipside, the publishing of such information risks the recovery of people with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia. People who find it difficult to escape thoughts of food and the calories it contains. People for whom a trip to a restaurant will be a huge deal in itself; these people will find the publishing of such data a threat, an attack, a trigger.


Anorexia Nervosa is a life-threatening disorder due to the effects of weight loss and starvation on the body and brain.

Says Alice Cachia, in recovery from anorexia, ‘For someone like me, if there's a pizza that has 300 less calories than another I'll instinctively go for it because I couldn't bear the idea of eating something that has more calories. That's someone who has been in recovery for five years. It's going to make the whole situation incredibly anxiety-inducing and cause a setback for lots of people's recoveries.’


Boris Johnson has lost over a stone in weight in his recovery from Covid-19. Whilst his anti-obesity intentions may seem laudable, necessary and perhaps well overdue, it’s not clear whether he has spent any time thinking about people like Alice and how this move may affect them. 


In their case, knowledge will likely result in action: starvation, anxiety, overwhelm… Being informed is all well and good, but there is such a thing as too much information.

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