Plans to publish calorie counts could misfire badly, warns eating disorders charity
Earlier this year, the Scottish Government launched a public consultation on plans to make calorie labelling on menus mandatory in restaurants, takeaways, cafes and even hospitals.
Similar legislation has already come into place in England, where cafes, restaurants and takeaways with over 250 employees have been legally required to display calories since April 2022.
We cannot underestimate the destructive impact this legislation would have on those with, vulnerable to, or in recovery from eating disorders. At Beat, we know from the people we support that calorie labelling on menus can increase stress and anxiety, which can worsen an existing eating disorder or contribute to an eating disorder developing.
Research has also shown that calorie labelling on menus can contribute to eating disorder behaviours. A 2017 study by Haynos and Roberto found that when making hypothetical food choices, people with anorexia or bulimia ordered food with significantly fewer calories when the menu included calories, compared to when there was no calorie count. People with binge eating disorder ordered food with significantly more calories when the information was provided, which we know can heighten feelings of guilt, shame and distress for those impacted by this serious mental illness.
To understand how those with eating disorders feel about adding calories to menus, earlier this year we surveyed over 180 people in Scotland who have or have had an eating disorder, or who have supported a loved one with an eating disorder. 95% of survey respondents said that introducing calorie labelling on menus would be negative or very negative for people living with eating disorders, and over half of respondents felt that they would go out to eat less often if this legislation came into effect.
Many survey respondents also raised concerns that proposed legislation would make it harder for those with eating disorders to eat out. This is concerning as eating out is often a key stage of recovery. For instance, an occupational therapist who responded to our survey said that adding calories to menus would make normalising eating out "even more challenging at such a crucial stage of recovery". Missing this stage of recovery could delay progress and keep people unwell for longer.
Finally, adding calories to menus is an ineffective health strategy. There is very limited evidence to suggest that calories on menus would lead to a reduction in calories eaten for the general population. For instance, a 2018 study in the US found that there is only a small body of low quality evidence to support the idea that calorie labelling on menus leads to a reduction in calories purchased. Although a more recent study found that calorie labelling in US fast food restaurants was linked to a four per cent reduction in calories per order, this reduction diminished after a year, suggesting any small changes that occur are not long-lasting.
Health is complex and cannot be determined by weight or size alone. This is particularly true of eating disorders, which impact 1.25 million people in the UK of all weights, sizes, genders, ages and backgrounds. The Scottish Government has framed mandatory calories on menus as a way to "ensure people can make more informed, healthier choices when it comes to eating food out or ordering takeaways", however there is no real evidence that adding calorie labelling to menus will reduce obesity levels for the general public, and there is strong evidence that it will harm those impacted by eating disorders.
To protect people affected by eating disorders, the Scottish Government must scrap proposed plans to make calorie labelling on menus mandatory.
Tom Quinn is Beat's director of external affairs. He leads relationships with governments, policy makers and stakeholders across the UK to help ensure that people with eating disorders can access the support that they need.
Beat is the UK’s eating disorder charity, providing help for anyone affected by an eating disorder, including helplines, online support groups, and support for people while they are waiting for specialist treatment. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat 365 days a year on its Scottish helpline at 0808 801 0432 or via firstname.lastname@example.org