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Calorie Counting on Menus

Updated: May 12, 2022

Since April 2022, restaurants, cafés and takeaways in the UK with more than 250 employees are required to display the amount of calories in their menu items. This legislation is attempting to tackle the obesity crisis.

Personally, I don’t believe in counting calories. I believe in nourishing my body with fresh, whole foods. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Of course I’m not an angel and do eat crisps, cakes, chocolate, chips and gooey cheese, but all in moderation. Of course I know that this can be easier said than done (believe me, it’s taken me years to get there!), and that calorie counting can help some people on their journey towards making healthier choices. As long as it’s used as a gentle guide and doesn’t become a complete obsession, I don’t have a problem with it as a path to food freedom. However, I do wonder what impact will new legislation will have on the food choices that we make. I believe that there are pros and cons.

Food labelling can help people to build an awareness around the choices they’re making, enabling them to make healthier decisions about what they eat, especially if they’re not nutritionally savvy or a calorie counting fiend.

But what about those with a difficult relationship with food? There are many, many people out there who could find the whole thing incredibly triggering, including the people that this legislation is trying to help.

How will the calorie count on the menu impact their choice? Will it hinder their ability to make their food choice based on what they prefer, or something which is nutritionally superior, over the calorific value of the meal? Will they nibble on low calorie foods when they’re out and come home unsatisfied and consume loads of chocolate and crisps? Will their favourite meal that they were quite happily eating before, suddenly become a big no no? Will calorie counting become an obsession and create an eating disorder? I could go on…

Let’s take a look at some facts around calories and menu labelling.

Calorie counting is not an exact science. It doesn’t take into account the cooking or processing methods of the food, and it doesn’t take into account how each individual is able to process that particular food either. Believe it or not, these things make a difference. Eating raw food requires more energy than something that’s been cooked for example. Calories are basically just a very crude measure of the amount of energy in food. And here’s something else to think about – research has found that calorie estimates on menus are inaccurate, sometimes by 200%.

Yes, you read that right, you don’t actually know if what you’re reading is true or not!

And of course, not all calories are equal – we need to look at the nutritional value of what we’re consuming too. A Wagamama’s “firecracker tofu curry”, completely vegan and full of vegetables gives your body protein, fibre, carbs and is packed with vitamins and minerals. A chocolate & praline crêpe, caramelised bananas, crème chantilly from Cote Brassiere – not so much, even though it has over 300 calories less! I know you can’t really compare the two and of course I’m not saying it’s wrong to eat a wonderful dessert from time to time. But, if you restrict yourself to a certain number of calories per day, it’s worth being mindful about what’s good for your body (and therefore good for your mind!)

What does the research tell us?

In the USA, calorie labelling on menus has been around for years. According to a review that took place in 2015, it’s not produced any significant changes to what customers are ordering at all. Other research suggests that after a while people ignore or ‘stop seeing’ the calorie count of their food order.

So, how often do you eat out, order a take-away or grab a bite to eat from a food retailer for lunch? Back in the day, eating out used to be on special occasions only, but now it’s the norm. And ordering a takeaway is as easy as pressing a few buttons on your phone or iPad thanks to Uber Eats and Deliveroo. So, when you’re out with family or friends, do you think knowing the calorific value will change your choice? Will you find the information enlightening and helpful? Will you find it alarming? Difficult? Triggering? Will you struggle to decide what to eat oscillating between what you want and what you think you should have? Will eating out become less enjoyable and more of a guilt trip?

Looking at the facts

It’s unlikely that this new legislation will help curb the obesity epidemic in the long term, but could make it really tough for anyone suffering with a difficult relationship with food and body image, or an eating disorder. Back in my days of anorexia and bulimia, I knew the calorie content of every single thing that passed my lips and I know that this would have exacerbated my daily battle with food. My mental health was already on the floor and this would have helped me sink even lower.

Since the new legislation came in, my family and I have eaten out on numerous occasions and every time, without me prompting it, the calorific value has come under discussion. As I said at the beginning, calorie counting is not for me – but has knowing the calorific value of what I’m ordering changed my food choices? My honest answer is; sometimes. If I’m choosing between two things that I fancy – I’ve found that I’m opting for the one with the least calories. And I’ve also found myself amazed at the calorie content of some meals. And as someone with my view on calorie counting, I’m quite shocked at my reaction. Will it continue, or as the American research suggests, will I eventually stop even noticing it? I certainly hope so. And if not, some restaurants have taken the initiative to offer the option of a menu without the calorie count – and if it’s on offer, that’s the one I’ll go for.


Some more suggested reading on this subject:

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