The new calorie measures are dangerous, not helpful

On the 27th of July, the government announced their new obesity strategy. Some of the steps they’re planning to introduce, such as encouraging shops to “offer more discounts on food like fruit and vegetables”, aren’t particularly controversial. Other planned measures, however, have been met with outrage and uproar – perhaps most notably their plan to legally require calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes, and takeaways with over 250 employees to “help people make healthier, informed choices as part of a balanced diet”, as well as to provide calorie labelling for alcohol. 

This proposed legislation is an appalling idea, with untold potential to cause distress and harm to a huge number of people.

Back in 2015, I developed an eating disorder, culminating in an anorexia diagnosis the following year. I’m pretty far down the road to recovery now, having spent four years in therapy with constant support from my family and friends. The thing which I’ve struggled with most along the way has been, without a shadow of a doubt, calorie counting.

It’s been more than 5 years since I’ve had a day without calorie counting. I started counting right at the beginning of my disorder, using it as a way to help me restrict my intake and lose weight. Further down the line, I used it as a way to make sure I didn’t lose weight, having lost any ability to trust my body and understand hunger cues. During lockdown, I used some of my additional free time to focus on challenging myself and have made progress – still counting, but much less rigidly than before. For the first time in years, I’m in a place where I don’t have to eat a set number every day, although calories are still always at the back of mind.

As someone whose relationship with food has been and is so dictated by numbers, I, like many others affected by eating disorders and calorie counting, have had a very strong reaction against the new government legislation. A huge source of outrage in the ED community has been around the lack of consideration given for those who are now going to find eating out an intensely difficult experience. It is going to be that much harder for some sufferers to choose what they want, not just the lowest calorie option.

I used the word ‘some’ there because, to be honest, I don’t think that these regulations are going to make it harder for me personally to eat out for the time being. Nutritional information is so firmly embedded in my head at this point that I can estimate the calorie count of most meals out with a pretty high degree of accuracy (not really sort of skill that would go down well at a party…), and so all the government rules will do is facilitate my existing compulsion. I do know that it is going to make things that much more difficult when I eventually try to completely let go of old habits and coping mechanisms.

My main concern, and what has most profoundly upset and enraged me, is that the proposed legislation normalises the idea of calorie counting as a way to make “healthier, informed choices” – when I would argue that it is anything but healthy. Promoting calorie counting as a way to make food choices distracts from the message that we really need to be teaching: the least mentally damaging way to make food choices is to listen to your body and use your hunger cues to make sure you broadly eat the right amount for you. A number on a menu is never going to tell you whether or not that meal will just really hit the spot; how tasty the food is going to be; how much effort went into preparing the meal; how good a time you’ll have with friends while you eat.

I do acknowledge that it is important for some sort of action to be taken with regards to obesity, particularly at the moment given that obesity-related conditions have been found to worsen the effects of coronavirus. However, bringing calorie counting into the equation just isn’t the way to go about it. Eating disorder charity Beat noted in their response to the government announcement that research shows “anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive, while the number of calories consumed is not a reliable indicator of health.” 

Further to this, research has actually found pretty mixed results in terms of the impact of calorie labelling on intake. In many studies, the people on whom there was the greatest impact tended to be on dieters or those who were already “motivated by nutritional information when making food decisions”, as well as those from wealthier backgrounds (when typically obesity has more prevalence among those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). This would defeat the object of the legislation – those who the government are trying to help will likely be least helped by these measures. I’ve learnt from many years of therapy and self-reflection that there is so much more to food than just numbers, and the government legislation threatens to normalise and promote the opposite view.  This is profoundly dangerous, and it will lead to mindset changes that disrupt and disturb many people’s relationships with food, or exacerbate existing eating disorders. If you are similarly minded, I would urge you to inform yourself and consider signing a petition in opposition to measures that send a dangerous message about the ‘right’ way to think about food.