Campaigners call for end to ‘destructive’ calorie labeling in open letter

Eating disorder campaigners have come together to request the government suspend it’s legislation to label food menus with calories, whilst necessary consultations and amendments are carried out.

As of 6 April 2022, it became compulsory for all restaurants, cafes, and takeaways in England that employ more than 250 people to include calorie counts on menus.

The aim of the legislation is to help reduce the amount of people diagnosed as obese in this country, by enabling people to ‘make informed, healthier decisions’, according to the government.

But eating disorder charities have condemned the move – and now the Hearts Minds Genes Coalition for eating disorders has coordinated an open letter, highlighting the problematic nature of adding calories to menus.

The letter highlights the dangers not just for those affected by eating disorders, but for wider society.

Signatories include Dr Agnes Ayton, Chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Pyschiatrists, Baroness Deborah Bull, and Professor Gerome Breen from the The Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative.

Additionally, the MPs Apsana Begum, Wera Hobhouse, John McDonell, Nadia Whittome, Ben Lake, Layla Moran and Sir George Howarth have pledged their support.

The letter emphasizes that with 16 per cent of the adult population screening positive for an eating disorder, and millions more suffering from one, the proposed “common-sense approach” – which focuses on weight and calorie counting – is incredibly destructive.

It goes on to call on the government to commit to an evaluation and review of the new legislation, to be undertaken within the first year, which will include members from the eating disorder community.

More immediately, it demands the removal of calorie labeling on children’s menus, and that every restaurant which has calorie labeling also has a no-calorie menu choice.

Hope Virgo, campaigner and chair of the Hearts Minds Genes Coalition for eating disorders, says: “I honestly still can’t quite believe that this has happened. For so many people affected by eating disorders restaurants will become an even more toxic and fearful place.

“It will normalize conversations around food and exercise. Over the pandemic we have seen a huge increase in eating disorders, with services completely overrun. Do we really want future generations to grow up basing their food decisions on numbers?

“Since the legislation came into force I have been inundated by messages from people who are have so much fear not just for themselves but those around them.”

Eating disorders are not a new illness, but the pandemic has spurred a huge rise in people affected by them – and delays to treatment have also contributed to avoidable chronic long-term illness, and loss of life.

For people for whom calorie counting is already an obsession, the latest legislation is flawed and damaging, and will lead to disordered eating, Virgo says.

She adds: “Calorie counting also detracts from good nutrition, with the quality of calories deemed more important.”

Suzanne Baker, Carer Rep for the Faculty of Eating Disorders at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, comments: “Focusing on weight reducing measures alone is ineffective at a population level and the introduction of calories onto menus is only going to add to the unimaginable distress and isolation of all those affected by Eating Disorders.

“Food really is medicine for this vulnerable sector of society, with part of recovery being social eating and overcoming eating disorder behaviors such as tracking calories. It is time that food was enjoyed and not vilified nor merely reduced to numbers.”

She adds: “Let’s work with the food industry and governments on policies that work towards the prevention of both obesity and eating disorders instead of a policy that puts the emphasis upon personal responsibility and further damages people’s health.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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