Open letter: Concerns over calorie labelling on restaurant menus

13 April 2022

Following new legislation which came into place on 6 April requiring all cafes, restaurants and takeaways with more than 250 employees to add calorie labels to menus, author and campaigner Hope Virgo has written an open letter highlighting the impact of these measures for people with eating disorders, and for the rest of society.

Dear Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid,

We are writing to you just one week after the calorie legislation has come into force and are extremely concerned about the detrimental consequences that this will have – not just on people affected by eating disorders, but also wider society.

You may recall that we wrote to you last year after the launch of the Government’s Obesity Strategy sharing our disappointment and the emphasis that the strategy places on numbers, weight and calorie counting – rather than on education and empowerment.

With 16% of the adult population screening positive for an eating disorder and millions more suffering from eating disorders, what is proposed as a “common-sense approach” – focusing on weight and calorie counting – is incredibly destructive. Indeed, this approach stands in stark contradiction to the approach favoured by clinicians, who seek to avoid the psychologically damaging focus on weight, calorie counting, and BMI.

Effective empowerment means equipping people with information to make better informed choices. Allowing customers to choose to ask for a special menu with calorific and nutritional information should they wish to have this information – as so many restaurants do already for those with food allergies – is far preferable. It allows consumers to opt in, whilst also avoiding negative outcomes for those with eating disorders. Furthermore, evidence has shown that 25% of people who restrict their food intake go on to develop an eating disorder.

Calorie counting in and of itself does not lead to healthy outcomes. Instead of becoming fixated on numbers we should be focusing on wider health messages. Since the legislation came in to play I have been inundated by messages from individuals, carers of those affected by eating disorders and those in recovery from eating disorders, who are already reporting of the destruction that this new measure is causing. We are also concerned that this will teach young people, children and the general public to watch or count calories which can only breed and compound disordered eating. Calorie labels don’t say anything about the nutritional value and enjoyment of food: on the contrary, they introduce guilt and unhealthy preoccupation with numbers.

It is also important to emphasise that we live in a society where disordered eating is normalised. This is extremely unhealthy and adding calories to menus will only exacerbate this. We will have children restricting their food intake and feeling concerned about calorific consumption, which could lead to an increase in eating disorders – illnesses with the highest and most preventable mortality rates and ones that costs the UK over £11.4 billion a year.

Obesity prevention policies need to be evidence based and coordinated with eating disorder prevention.

With these huge concerns in mind, we are today calling for the Government to:

  1. Make a commitment that the evaluation of the new legislation to label menus with calories on will happen in the first year with a commitment that members from the eating disorder community and experts will be involved in this review.
  2. To make it mandatory for every single restaurant that has to have mandatory calorie labelling to also have a no-calorie menu choice for those who wish to request this.
  3. To remove the labelling of calories on children’s menus in all restaurants immediately.

We look forward to receiving a swift response to our letter and to engaging with you on this important issue.

Hope Virgo

Dr Agnes Ayton

Suzanne Baker

Professor Gerome Breen

Dr Ashish Kumar

Sarah Hughes

Simon Brown

Apsana Begum MP

Wera Hobhouse MP

Baroness Bull

Nadia Whittome MP

Ben Lake MP

Jamie Stone MP

Layla Moran MP

Sir George Howarth MP

John McDonnell MP

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