London (CNN)This week, draft legislation seen by the Daily Telegraph and the BBC shows UK government plans to force restaurants, cafes, and other food outlets to show calorie content alongside all menu items.
“It is a blunt tool to try to reduce the sale and consumption of high calorie food,” says Dr. Hazel Wallace, founder and author of The Food Medic. “We need to be careful that we are providing people with clear, transparent information so that they can make informed decisions and that by restricting certain foods, or assigning labels to food, we aren’t confusing people or causing shame around food.”
One of many limitations when it comes to displaying nutritional information is that many people are ill equipped to interpret it — especially when food companies already do their best to throw customers off the scent with misleading labels.
If parents are already struggling to feed children for optimal health, the focus on calories could throw them further off track. Willpower alone has been shown to be an ineffective means of controlling diet, and without any investment in structured education, or delicious, balanced school dinners to use as templates, how is anyone to know what to make of calorie counts?
“The fear in highlighting calories alone is that we will jeopardize other important factors of a healthy diet,” explains Dr. Wallace. “For example, a wrap made with chicken, roasted vegetables, and salad may be higher in calories than a sandwich made with just cheese or ham. The latter will be lower calorie though, and therefore pitched as the better choice, when really the chicken wrap is probably a more balanced, satisfying meal.” It certainly seems unlikely that calorie-conscious children would choose a nutrient-dense meal when dining out unattended, if it turned out that the ice cream sundae on the menu looked “skinnier.”
Guilt and shame
It’s worth noting that calorie counting isn’t new. Most food packaging in supermarkets has displayed nutritional information for years, yet the population overall has continued to gain weight. British children are among the least active in the world, and the cheapest convenience foods tend to be very low in vital nutrients.
For many parents, the message that the only ready-made foods they can afford are terrible is unhelpful and demotivating. In countries like the US, where calories have been displayed on many menus for some time, there has also been evidence of attention fatigue. That is to say, once people are used to seeing them, they cease to pay calories much heed, unless they were interested to begin with.
“Calorie counts on foods tend to affect people who are already calorie conscious,” says sports and eating disorder dietician Renee McGregor. “Obesity is so much more complicated than calories in, calories out, and we need to look at all levels.” As with restrictive eating disorders, the psychology behind obesity when it is product of comfort-eating rather than poverty, goes far deeper than food. “We need to talk about the emotional aspects of over-eating, in environments where over-eating looks like the norm.” says Renee. “If your behavior looks the same as your parents,’ why would you question it?”
Fostering guilt and shame for behavior which is a natural product of a person’s upbringing could be harmful for many, and devastating for people already struggling with issues around food. As mental health charities like Beat and Mind have pointed out, the implication that we “should” be aware of the calories we’re consuming plays straight into an eating disorder mindset.
“Obsessive calorie counting is one of the primary behaviors that has to be tackled during treatment for eating disorders,” says Nancy Tucker, author of The Time In Between, a memoir of her teenage years struggling with anorexia and bulimia.
“For some people with bulimia nervosa, the decision about whether to purge or not can be based on whether they have eaten more than a certain number of calories.” The introduction of calories on menus implies that we should all aspire to know the exact nutritional content of everything we eat. This, Tucker continued, “might cause people with eating disorder to question the necessity of recovery,” if — as with many overeaters, what they are doing appears normalized.
While the roots of eating disorders go far beyond a single environmental factor, calorie counts on menus could also prove a destructive “hook” during recovery. “If I found that food I had eaten in the past had contained a higher number of calories than I was comfortable with, it probably would have triggered a crisis and possibly a relapse,’ she says.
Most people thankfully do not police their calories with the zeal of an anorexic, but whether they did or not, evidence suggests that it’s unlikely sticking them on menus will prove a meaningful education. Healthy eating should be pleasurable eating, and this depends on a nurturing food environment, not a punitive one. Any policy which hurts the vulnerable, while sparing the more robust, feels like bad news. “It reminds me of the safety my eating disorder represented,” says Tucker. “I always felt I was doing the right thing: the government implies we should all be eating less, and I was eating nothing, so I was beyond reproach.”