Leading eating disorder charities have told HuffPost UK they have concerns over government plans to force restaurants, cafes, takeaways and online delivery services to display food calorie counts on menus.
The move was announced in July and the Department Of Health is now reportedly preparing to release full details of how it will ensure “consistent” labelling features on menus in all food outlets.
A draft piece of legislation, seen by The Telegraph, states that the policy will allow people to make “informed and healthy choices for themselves and their family”, but two organisations that work with people who have eating disorders have said displaying the numbers could “cause great distress” for sufferers.
Beat chief executive Andrew Radford told HuffPost UK that while counting calories can help some people who are suffering from an eating disorder to “plan their eating, as a tool in their recovery”, it can also “act as a barrier to intuitive eating and cause great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders”.
He said: “Sufferers often speak of an ‘eating disorder voice’ that tells them to avoid certain foods and overrides what their body wants, and calorie counts can act as a trigger for such harmful thoughts.
“Public health campaigns need to consider people’s mental health as well as their physical health. They must move away from obesity-shaming to emphasising healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people.”
Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorder, added that the calorie counts could make things harder for people in recovery.
“When individuals are trying to recover, we try to get them to eat a broad diet and have a little bit of everything,” she explained. “Having calorie counts could interfere with recovery as they might say, ‘Well I’m not eating that, it has 500 calories. I want this, it’s 490’, and that kind of thing.
“I think it [the counts] can help people make choices but it can be potentially harmful for people who have obsessive compulsive thoughts about numbers.”
Both charities also pointed out that calories are not necessarily a good indicator of how healthy a meal is. Radford said: “Although we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive.
“We also know that the number of calories is not a reliable indicator of health.”
“You can have grilled salmon that’s high calorie but healthy,” Jade said. “You can have a salad, which is giving you no protein or essential fats, which is possibly less healthy. It only gives a partial picture.”
“What I think is important is that we do have an awareness of what we put in our mouths, but the problem is, that’s been damaged by cult messages about clean eating and low carb diets.
“There’s an overriding contamination of that awareness by other messages about what we should and shouldn’t be eating.”
Jade did say that she doesn’t think the move will lead to an increase in the amount of people with from eating disorders. “People suffering from eating disorders tend to try and figure out the calories in everything anyway, because that’s part of the problem,” she said. “It’s often all about numbers. Is the number right or wrong?”
Marg Oaten - a representative for SEED Eating Disorder - also addressed the matter. She told HuffPost UK: “My concern would be for those people who struggle with food and food issues.
“It is not educating them in food values such fats, vitamins, protein and carbohydrates and is sending the wrong messages that food has got to be sold with a calorific price tag.”
The Telegraph’s report on the proposed legislation claims it could be opposed by the Treasury, as it could cost small businesses up to £500 a year.
They would be required to list calorie counts for all menu items and when their offerings change, the menus would need to be reprinted.
A number of larger chains - including McDonald’s and Wetherspoons - already voluntarily display the information on their menus and signage.
Numerous others, including Zizzi’s, label menu items which include fewer calories.
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