***Content warning: This article contains mentions of eating disorders, weight loss, and calorie counting***
On 6th April 2022, the UK government brought in new rules which means that many restaurants, cafes and take-away businesses will now have to print the calorie content of the food they serve on their menus.
BEAT, the UK’s Eating Disorder charity, described itself as ‘disappointed’ about this move – saying that it will increase anxiety and unhealthy behaviours for people with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
The government itself has stated that this move is intended to ‘improve the nation’s health’, specifically citing the country’s obesity levels.
As someone with a medical degree and experience of working to support those with eating disorders, I’m with BEAT on this one.
Furthermore, I believe that focusing the conversation around healthy eating on calorie counting is potentially harmful for many people, not just those with established eating disorders.
Calories – a measure of the amount of energy food contains – are a pretty limited way of understanding how healthy or nutritious a certain food is. A healthy diet contains a range of some food groups and a limited amount of things like saturated fats, salt and some types of sugars. Knowing the calorie content of a meal tells you nothing about this type of information however.
It also ignores the important social and pleasurable part food can play in our lives. I cannot imagine having dim-sum with my family in Chinatown or going out with friends for a Sunday pub lunch and being able to keep track of the calorific content. It just wouldn’t be an enjoyable experience.
To demonstrate how limited and how unhealthy it can be to focus on calories alone, I’ve mocked up a week’s worth of daily menus that would be below my recommended calorie intake, but I would definitely not consider to be a ‘healthy’ diet.
Each day’s worth of meals contains no more than 2,000 calories, what NHS online says is generally the ‘recommended intake’ for women (immediately after stating that an individual’s actual food energy requirement is based on lots of variables!).
As you can see, despite coming in at just less than 2,000 calories every day, this is a staple diet of saturated fats and sugars. It’s all vegetarian so is – at least distantly – mostly plant-derived, although contains no fresh fruit or veg. As a day’s worth of food, I think you’d be left pretty hungry too.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of the food items that I’ve included. I don’t believe any food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of itself and most of them are things that I love and often choose eat. Even if something is fatty and/or full of carbs, there are times when the best thing for your body and mind is to eat it.
I am saying that these foods all need to be eaten alongside other types of food, to be part of a varied diet. Calorie counting does not encourage this. This type of food promotion is potentially very unhealthy and ultimately misleading.
(All calorie estimates made using product packages or NHS calorie checker)