Saskia Murphy counts the
ways calorie labels fail

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It’s no secret that Britain has an obesity problem. Almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese. And by the time one in three children leave primary school there are already alarm bells ringing over their weight.

The pandemic has shone a light on the impact obesity has on health outcomes. But even before Covid the stats were grim. In March 2017 a report by Public Health England estimated that obesity was responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year. On average, obesity deprives an individual of an extra nine years of life.

And obesity is expensive. Overweight and obesity-related health conditions across the UK cost the NHS around £6.1 billion each year, projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050.

Even the most ardent anti-diet campaigner has to admit we’ve got to do something.

There are a number of solutions that could make a difference: improving access to fresh, affordable food would be a good place to start. But instead, the government has decided to go after the sacred act of eating out. As of this month, restaurants, cafes, takeaways and pub chains with more than 250 staff are required to display itemised calorie labels on menus and food packaging. How utterly miserable – and misguided.

Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows it’s not the one-off meals out that make much of a difference. Weight loss happens when lifestyle changes are made over a prolonged period.

Unless you’re someone who eats out every day (lucky you), it is likely the government’s new initiative to punish us all by turning our dinners into maths equations will do nothing more than suck the joy out of dining out. And it is a disaster for people living with eating disorders.

For most of us, eating out is a celebration. A trip to a restaurant is often a treat to mark life’s special moments: birthdays, anniversaries, pay days, new jobs.

Dining out is what separates the mundane weeknight dinnertimes from fun Friday nights and slow-paced Sundays.

Last week, as the new rules came into effect, Sky News presenter Sophy Ridge tweeted an image of a Sunday roast menu. Next to the descriptions of succulent joints of meat lovingly prepared with roasted root vegetables were the calorie penalties. A slow-cooked pork belly roast with a red wine jus came in at a staggering 2,653 calories – more than the recommended daily amount for the average woman.

Now, if I was at that table and faced with the menu of calorie-calculated doom, would I shun a delectable pork belly roast dinner in favour of a salad? Absolutely not, because pork belly is delicious, and it is a crime to eat salad on Sundays.

Reader, I would order the pork belly roast dinner, along with a bottle of wine (on average 300 calories per half a bottle). Then, tasked with the dessert menu, I would probably order sticky toffee pudding too. I would leave the restaurant rosy cheeked and satisfied, but in the back of my mind the numerical calculation of what I’d just consumed would no doubt follow me all the way home. For those who suffer from eating disorders, the anxiety will be amplified.

The government’s new war on restaurant dining will do nothing to combat obesity, but it will make the world a little more joyless. The burden of calorie counting has no place in a restaurant.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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