Why calorie counts are being added to menus and how it could affect people with eating disorders

Restaurant chains have been forced to put calorie counts on the menu for the first time, Hannah Miller reports

Big fast food, pub or restaurant chains in England will have to display calorie counts on their menus from Wednesday as part of a government drive to tackle obesity.

Here's exactly what this means, where it's happening and why some campaigners believe it could be damaging.

What are calories and why do we count them?

The amount of energy in an item of food or drink is measured in calories (kcal).

When we eat and drink more calories than we use up in energy, our bodies store the excess as body fat. If this continues, over time we may put on weight, the NHS says.

An average man needs around 2,500kcal a day to maintain a healthy body weight.

For an average woman, that figure is around 2,000kcal a day.

But these values can vary depending on age, size and levels of physical activity, among other factors.

Some people record the number of calories they consume every day, often with the goal of losing, maintaining, or gaining weight. They may keep a diary for this, or an app that counts calories for them.

Which businesses will have to display calorie counts on their menus?

Businesses with 250 or more employees will be required to display the calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks prepared for customers.

Do the rules apply to takeaways?

Yes, the rules apply to takeaways too. This means you will also see calorie counts appearing on online menus and food apps.

Why have the changes been made?

The new measures form part of the government's so-called war on obesity. The government says the calorie counts have been introduced to help people make more informed, healthier choices when eating out or ordering takeaways.

Overweight and obesity-related conditions cost the NHS £6.1 billion each year, it is estimated. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or obese – and one in three children leaves primary school at an unhealthy weight.

In a Public Health England survey on calorie reduction, 79% of respondents said they think menus should include the number of calories in food and drinks.

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Could the changes negatively affect people with eating disorders?

One charity has warned the move will negatively affect people with eating disorders.

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, said the eating disorder charity was “extremely disappointed”.

He said: “We know from the people we support that including calories on menus can contribute to harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviours worsening"

He added: “For instance, it can increase a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge-eating disorder.

“There is also very limited evidence that the legislation will lead to changed eating habits among the general population.

“1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and sadly we know that the pandemic has contributed to more people than ever before needing support for these serious mental illnesses.

“Beat has continually asked the government to consider the impact on people affected by eating disorders and to take an evidence-based approach when creating health policies.

“This should involve consulting eating disorder clinicians and experts by experience at every stage of the process".

What has the government said about the plans?

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Obesity is one of the biggest health issues we face as a country and clear food labelling plays an important role in helping people make healthier choices for themselves and their families.

“We are all used to seeing nutritional information on products sold in supermarkets and displaying calorie information on menus can help us consume fewer calories when eating out or getting a takeaway.

“The regulations will also allow businesses to provide menus without calorie information at the request of the customer."

What has the hospitality industry said about the changes?

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the group UKHospitality said the new rules had "come at the worst possible time for thousands of businesses struggling to survive".

She called for a grace period "to allow businesses breathing space in which to implement the new rules without the risk of unnecessary enforcement action from day one".

“It’s completely unfair to expect businesses devastated by Covid to all of a sudden introduce complicated and costly new labelling when they’ve much more pressing matters to attend to – recouping their losses of the past 24-months for a start."

MasterChef winner and London-based restaurateur Sven-Hanson Britt tweeted that the changes were "a terrible, terrible thing to happen to the hospitality industry and a waste of time, money and a potential danger".

"Kids will grow up in restaurants, hotels and cafes only looking at that little number below a dish. Choices will be made based on a number alone. The love of flavour, ingredients, history, cooking craft or nutrition will be lost and masked by a newly perceived focus."

Mr Britt went on to question how consumers could even trust restaurants to display calorie information accurately.

"What happens when the head chef whisks an extra 200g of butter into the jus, or only 1/2 a bottle of red was put into the reduction instead of 4, or avocados didn’t come in because of Brexit delays at the border so they swap it out for something else?"