CW: Mentions of eating disorders

By now, you will probably have heard of, if not experienced, the new Government plan to tackle obesity. From April 6th, all restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 staff are required to publish and print the calorie content of every meal on their menus. The reasoning behind such a move might seem obvious. In 2020, the Government identified that 62.8% of the adult population were obese; a shocking statistic, of course, and one with innumerable personal and social implications, but what such data represents is far more than an ignorance of how many calories are in what we eat. 

Such an action seems to be fundamentally avoiding the real problem. Led on a long-winded ramble by short-sighted government schemes and policies, we are once more left without true help and focus, only a slightly condescending and taunting number which, let’s be honest, could mean anything. Can we really say that the obesity crisis, such as it is, is caused by not knowing the difference in energy content between a cheese hamburger with chips and a dry cracker? Our society, unfortunately, is facing bigger battles than calories.

The current situation has been the inevitable result of years of negligence in food. Where once school children were taught cookery skills, ‘home economic’ lessons, giving them a fundamental grounding in how to feed themselves, the education system now seems to view such learning as inessential. Without sufficient government funding, these lessons have been pushed further and further back on the agenda, now appearing as a more optional activity for those who, maybe, just quite like baking. My own ‘food technology’ lessons consisted of a term’s pastry making (nothing clever, just shortcrust, dressed up in various guises which left me and my family eating jam tarts and mince pies for weeks. Enjoyable, but hardly an everyday life-skill which will help me to competently feed myself), a few weeks of macaroni cheese, and a week, as the grand finale, of chocolate pizza (if you’re wondering, you melt chocolate, pour it on a sheet, and sprinkle decorations on top. Exciting stuff). Of course, to get a better education you could always go on to study Food at GCSE; an optional extra with the focus on over-complex technique and, primarily, scraping a decent grade. Surely at this point though, we have lost the real incentive to truly learn to feed ourselves: to look after ourselves.

Without a good education and understanding of food and cookery we will inevitably be unable to distinguish between the foods we do and don’t need, the ease of preparing a well-rounded and nutritious meal, or the very futility of a number indicating calorie content. Such a number fails to take into account the necessary fibres, proteins, fats, and sugars which we need every day, let alone the more social factors of flavour, history or craft; it serves to reduce the huge expanse of food identification into a numerical requirement, a corrupted shortcut to a good lifestyle which fails to deliver you to the right destination.

On top of this, the UK must tackle the crippling food poverty crisis. With approximately 2.5 million people using a foodbank in the UK in 2020/2021, and the choices which we all face (like that between a £2.29 Triple Cheeseburger in McDonalds or a pack of 6 apples from Tesco for £2.30) can you really blame people, both those living on the brink, and those who simply don’t want to spend the majority of their income on groceries, for the health of their meal choices? Putting a label of calorie content is not going to help someone trying to make ends meet avoid a high calorie item – it might add a sense of guilt, but it can’t reduce the vast problem of inequality which this represents.

Whilst for some, perhaps the lucky few, adding a number to the bottom of a meal will not implicate their choice of food, there are also, of course, those who will be disproportionately affected by such an introduction in other ways. What such a movement seems to ignore is the undeniable knock on effects to mental health. Many people, including the eating disorder charity Beat, have raised this issue, but when such voices will really be heard is uncertain. In the meantime, millions of people (between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are thought to be affected by an eating disorder) will have to confront greater threats to their physical and mental wellbeing every time they pick a meal. When you have put all your strength into going to a restaurant, a place centred around your greatest fear, readied yourself to try and enjoy something a little further out of your control, to be met with a comparative scale of ‘healthiness’ may be devastating. We hardly want to find ourselves in the position of putting trigger warnings above café doors, but when something which should be so much about pleasure and relaxation is turned into yet another battle ground for those who struggle with disordered eating, I struggle to see where we can maintain the safe spaces, the neutral spaces, we so clearly need.

We all know that governments like a quick fix. The short terms of office which each leadership possesses encourage equally short plans and policies. Too afraid to invest in the long-term, they leave a legacy of badly-planned, myopic schemes which fail to see outside the brief. Adding calories on a menu may provide someone with a new job for a few months, but it ignores the simmering injustices and ignorance of our society, only helping in adding a few more health debts to the list.