Calorie Transparency and Body Image

It has been four months since the introduction of government-mandated calories on chain restaurant menus, but how have those with eating disorders been coping?


CW: This article discusses topics of eating disorders and mental health which could be distressing to some readers.


When it was announced that calorie-labelled menus were making their way into restaurants with a stock of 250 staff, opinions were divided. With many government officials approving the change, multiple mental health (MH) and eating disorder (ED) charities became fearful. Aware of the effects of seeing involuntary calories on those with ED, social media quickly became focused on how those affected could combat the change.


What is body image?


Body image affects all of us. It is how we think and feel about ourselves and is further concerned with how we believe others see us. It can be how we view ourselves in reflection, individual mental perception, and other internalisations we assume. Due to its situation being mainly in the psyche, body image can curate a range of positive and negative thoughts and feelings. Social media, dieting and restrictive eating, and overexercising are some of the leading factors in determining your body image. Therefore, when the government insisted on calories being introduced in chain restaurants, the risk of negative perceptions of body image increased.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Why did the government enforce this?


Public perception of body image seems to be the short answer. Or rather, the government think so. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social care argued that “obesity is one of the biggest health issues we face as a county”. They argued that we are already exposed to nutritional information when shopping in supermarkets; therefore, “displaying calorie information on menus can help us consume fewer calories”. Supplementing this, GOV.UK stated that these “rules will help the public to make healthier choices when eating out”. But what about those who avoid calories for their health?


Public Health Minister Jo Churchill believes that the change was made in order to “make sure everyone has access to accurate information about the food and drink we order.” If the change was about ‘access’, then surely it should have been optional. EDs are rife and a painful struggle for many - seeing this information could directly deter progress. Likewise, ‘accurate information’ can still be accurate without calorific numbers exposed involuntarily at our disposal.


What is the difference between nutritional information and calorie labelling?


Personal trainer and influencer @lucymountain took to Instagram shortly after the change in order to shed light on what this change meant for many. She asserts that “calories just tell us how much energy is in the food… it doesn’t tell us what nutrients are in the meal itself”. She adds that “*actual* nourishment means considering all the benefits a meal has to offer, both nutritionally and emotionally”.


As previously discussed, the issue with ‘access’ is that it has not been optional. Lucy further argued that “information on what you put in your mouth should be accessible for those who would like it, but it should be a personal choice. Not a requirement”.

Photo by @lucymountain on Instagram


What are the implications for those concerned with their body image?


Having calories fleetingly exposed leads to people hyper fixating on not only their weight but the way they look. For many people, the act of eating out or ordering a takeaway became a lot more complex and increased anxiety. The Young Minds MH charity, amongst many others, quickly actioned help pages and tips for those coping with the change. Many of the pages discussed speaking about how it affected individuals, with a particular focus on how struggling with eating has impacted their body image.


ED charity Beat responded to the change by stressing the problems for those concerned about how they look. Their Chief Executive Andrew Radford said that “calorie counts on menus risk causing great distress for people”, wherein “evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds”. Radford believes that the government’s plan is far too focused on “obesity-shaming” when it should actually be “emphasising healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people”.


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash


How does it affect me and what can I do about it?


1.25 million men and women suffer from ED in the UK. Similarly, you do not have to have had an ED to understand the concerns around calorie labelling. It causes a lot of people anxiety and stress and ultimately takes the enjoyment out of meals.


Stuart Flint, a director of Obesity UK, said it was unclear who the regulation would help. In short, a chocolate bar or packet of crisps has fewer calories than a balanced meal but are the calorie numbers being placed so that that individual skips the meal in replacement for fewer calories? “It’s not always about reducing the amount we eat”, he contends.


Luckily, many restaurants have ensured that there is the option for a calorie-free menu. Some chains have even continued to keep their online menus free from the new requirement meaning that people can look ahead whilst avoiding any upset.


Katie Mortimer 21/05/2022