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Government Mandates on Menus

The UK government now requires businesses to put caloric information on menus. The new law says that businesses with over 250 employees will face a fine of up to £2500 if they ignore improvement notices.

When my wife took me out for lunch at our local Pizza Express all the calories were listed, but we still ate what we wanted.

The changes are part of a new obesity strategy, approved by Parliament in 2021. The strategy also includes regulations to restrict the promotion of less healthy foods both in shops and online, with similar limits on what kind of food is advertised before 9pm.

Maggie Throup, Public Health Minister said: “We are used to knowing this when we are shopping in the supermarket, but this isn’t the case when we eat out or get a takeaway.”

Reactions to the changes have been mixed and with good reason. Generally, government has poor form on any strategy relating to health. For decades we were told fat was bad, while manufacturers loaded up processed foods with hidden sugars. Is it any wonder consumers are confused and sceptical of government advice?

Having calories on menus gives consumers information that allows them to make informed choices. I think more information can be helpful when deciding what we put into our bodies. With people being more health conscious these days, it is in the interests of business to want to sell products to those customers.

For people tackling obesity it can be a helpful tool to make sure they stay on track. Speaking as a nutrition coach, I don’t encourage perfectionism with clients as this brings its own problems. Eating well most of the time, is usually sufficient to lose or support a healthy weight. Planning to eat indulgent food can be incorporated into healthy eating.

On the flipside, tracking calories can have a detrimental effect on some people’s mental health, as it can, and does lead to eating disorders. Many popular tracking apps are used by people with eating disorders, who become obsessed with their calorie intakes. That is why I don’t always ask my clients to track calories.

Most people don’t know what their real caloric needs are anyway. I met a woman in the gym who said she was eating 1200 calories a day. When I calculated her actual calorie needs to lose weight, it turned out she needed closer to 2300 calories per day, to lose weight at a sustainable rate.

I am never a fan of anything government mandated, and I think fines like this are unhelpful. One of the greatest principles I apply to nutrition is that of individual autonomy. It isn’t my place to tell you what you should or should not eat. That’s the free choice of any individual, providing you accept the consequences of that choice. This seems to be another government led “nudge” to save the NHS again.

Some make the argument about poverty and rising prices being the most significant factor in obesity. This is another very narrow view of nutrition. I could easily create several affordable and healthy meals from any of the major supermarkets. Eating well, is not expensive if you know what you’re looking for. I have meal prep ideas that cost just £2.07 per person and include fresh vegetables, healthy carbs, proteins, and fats.

A case can be made that urbanisation of society and industrialisation of food manufacturing plays a role too.

The issue really stems from education, or lack thereof. Most people don’t know how to eat well because nobody ever taught them. Some kids never learned to cook a meal from scratch, or even where their food comes from.

I’ve never met a client yet who asked me to just tell them what to eat and they’ll eat it. Even if they did I wouldn’t, and neither should the government.

The government complains that we’re constantly a burden to the NHS and need to take more responsibility for our health. I agree that individuals are responsible for their health, and so perhaps it is time to stop paying for other people’s health choices. Everyone has the right to decide how they want to live, and they have the responsibility to deal with the consequences of those choices.

I don’t hold with the idea of fat-shaming people about their weight, as there are many complex causes. Some are physiological in cause, and some are psychological. In a lot of cases, it isn’t always the individual who is at fault. Perhaps calories on menus are the latest form of government fat shaming?

The final question for me is will restaurants stop creating tasty and appealing meals just so they can satisfy a tick box notion of caloric perfection?

As someone who’s viewed more food diaries than I can recall, people’s food choices are generally not that creative. If chefs now feel their recipe ideas are dictated by calories, then will it mean they become less adventurous? or will it mean a choice of more innovative and creative menus? I hope it is the latter of the two choices.

In the end, I don’t think this measure will have any impact on consumer choices. So, this is only likely to add a greater burden to smaller businesses. McDonalds and other bigger brands have been sharing their calorie information for over a decade, and people still eat there.

Proving once again that consumers drive the market, and that individual autonomy and self-interest are the only ways people will make positive health changes.

Rob Ede - Wessex Coordinator

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