5 minute read

If you eat out at chain restaurants, cafes, or takeaways you might have become aware of the latest tactic in supporting weight management: the addition of calorie information on menus.

With more than 60% England’s adults considered “overweight/obese”, and the cost to the NHS estimated to be more than £6bn, it’s clear that health policymakers need to focus our attention on our weight and its impact on our health. The government’s approach has always centred around calories, with the “energy equation” or “calories in versus calories out” always given as the root consideration in excess (and under-) weight, so the addition of calorie information to menus is no surprise.

Whilst I (and many other nutrition professionals) dispute the validity of focusing solely on calories to “normalise” weight (or, indeed, whether weight should be pathologised at all), the government is trying to help us when it comes to making better choices.

Calories on menus: does it work?

There are so many reasons we might choose to eat outside of home, from the fundamental refuelling we need to function through to the social and celebratory. The “average adult” obtains between a fifth and a quarter of their total calorie intake out of the home, either eating out or calling food in from takeaways and delivery services. And many of the choices contain far more calories than those we’d prepare at home. Calories on menus do offer a way of understanding the amount of energy we’re about to consume, but can that influence behaviour?

Yes, it can.

Earlier this week, I was in London with my daughter and we had some time to grab a coffee. When we lived in Belgium, one of our family’s favourite cafes was Le Pain Quotidien and, being near to one of their outlets, we decided to indulge our nostalgia and share a blast from the past. We’d had an early start to our day and, feeling a little peckish, had been looking at the menu online and discussing our choices ahead of arriving. Once we were seated, however, the calorie information was available and suddenly the choices we’d planned seemed…unattractive. We changed our mind, chose something else with far fewer calories, purely on the basis of the information provided.

And this is me: a professional who understands that calories are not the Be-All-and-End-All of successful weight management; a professional who practises Aware Eating; a professional who understands that weight is multifactorial…

And still, I changed my choice.

So yes, it can nudge us towards a more conscious choice (tick that box), but a “healthier” choice? Hmmm.

The calorie:weight debate

As I said earlier, I don’t endorse the “energy equation” approach to weight management. Weight is a product of many factors, beyond the number of calories we consume or expend; restricting our focus (and our calories) to the energy equation means that we overlook a key consideration: calorie quality.

Yes: calorie quality. It might surprise you to know that, despite what we’re told by many in the field, not all calories are equal. Calories can be “empty”, devoid of anything other than junk that bring nothing of value to our body but require nutrients to process them and so deplete our overall nutritional status. Some calories can be nutrient-dense, bringing a lot of value for health and nutritional status. And a better way forward is to maximise choices that bring more than purely “calories”, the options that offer more “bang-for-your-buck”.

So, calorie information can provide a moment for conscious choice, but there is a need to go a little deeper than the number if that choice is to be “healthier”.

Calorie information has a darker side

My work on weight management has shifted over the years towards a more weight-neutral stance, primarily because the evidence shows that a calorie-based approach leads to yo-yo dieting or “weight cycling”. It is this weight destabilisation that impacts health far more than stable, managed, excess weight does.

When we focus on “weight”, we ignore the wider considerations in “eating” and we risk damaging our relationship with food. For some people, “eating” becomes complicated, enmeshed with so many other elements of life, and the provision of calorie information on menus can create confusion and distress. As eating disorder charities, organisations and professionals have been quick to point out:

“Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.”

Andrew Radford, CEO, Beat

As always, it’s a question of balance…

Calorie information on menus may be a welcome addition for some of us who are actively trying to manage weight by manipulating their energy equation.

Calorie information on menus can offer a moment of pause, where we reflect on whether our first choice is better for our health (and we might change our choice to something more calorific if this offers more nutrients).

Calorie information can skew our relationship with food, encouraging us to override or ignore signals from our body and potentially causing other problems downstream.

What to do?

There are several options:

  • ask for a menu without calorie information
  • check in with your body, and mind, to ask “am I hungry?” and if the answer is “yes”, ask yourself “what am I hungry for?” then choose what feels right in that moment
  • choose what is calling to you and eat it with awareness (slow down, chew, take sips of water, connect with the eating experience)
  • use the Hunger-Fullness Scale throughout the eating experience to encourage you body to tell you when it’s had enough (and no, you don’t need to clear your plate)

And remember, the requirement to provide calorie information only applies to businesses with more than 250 employees. So to avoid calorie information altogether, support smaller businesses. And you’ll be doing your bit for the local economy too.

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