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More Food, Fewer Calories

A new law came into force on 6 April* that requires many eateries to state calories on their menus. There are exemptions – it only applies to businesses that employ 250 or more people and ‘specials’ (dishes on the menu for 30 days or less) do not need to be calorie counted.

The reason for the new legislation is as a measure to tackle to obesity. With levels of obesity continuing to rise, and the cost of this to the NHS (an estimated £6.1 billion each year*), there is no doubt that it is a crisis that needs tackling.

To cut levels of obesity, behaviour change is needed. The evidence that calorie information changes people’s behaviour when ordering is not strong. Since 2012 there has been a voluntary scheme in place to state calories on menus. Yet obesity continues to rise. And for some people, with disordered eating, details about calories can prompt unhelpful behaviour.

An impact of the voluntary measure was companies supplying cakes to the big high street coffee shops were asked to reduce the calorie counts on their products. It is thought that the new rules to display calorie information may encourage businesses to provide lower calorie options for their customers. However as a measure of how healthy food is, calories are simply not the whole picture.

We get nutrition from food not calories. A calorie count does not show how much salt, protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals or diversity there is in an item. In fact some higher calorie foods can often be more nutritionally dense, for example nuts. More than that: calorie labelling can be inaccurate.*

A healthy diet is about a diverse range of nutrients, not calories. I believe that eating a diverse range of whole foods is the single best way to improve your diet. Eating this way provides nutrition and food that will make you feel healthy and satisfied. Remember we eat food, not numbers.

My view is that calorie information on a menu is a blunt measure to draw any conclusion about how healthy something is. It seems like wishful thinking on the part of the government to believe it is the answer to rising obesity levels. I wonder if information about the diversity and how many plants are in dish would be an interesting alternative?

Of course to make informed choices we need knowledge, but this is a nuanced issue. Socio-economic circumstances and food availability and the power of food business all weigh in to the obesity picture.

Will calories on menus make a difference - what do you think?

Leave a comment below.

Further reading

Do Calories Count – on my blog 

What does 200 calories look like? - a photo essay showing 200 calories of different foods

References

*Calorie counts can be inaccurate 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3605747

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