Why mandatory calorie labels may be harmful to some...

This week in the UK, new legislation has come into force requiring calorie labels on food listed on menus. Any business with more than 250 employees, including restaurants, cafes and takeaways are now required to publish the calories contained in non-prepackaged dishes. This is a move being taken in an effort to reduce the obesity epidemic and to help individuals to regulate their food consumption. However, in my experience of working with individuals to rebuild their relationship with food, calorie-labelling could be very harmful for some individuals and here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Many people struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating Disordered eating and eating disorders tend to involve focusing a lot of time, energy and mental spacing worrying about food choices. In my experience, a lot of people struggling with their weight have disordered eating patterns and spend a lot of their time worrying about food. Often these worries can centre around feeling the need to restrict or limit calorie/food consumption. For individuals struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder or any other disordered eating patters often even just for those trying to lose weight (and vey preoccupied with worries around weight), an important part of the recovery journey is for an individual to stop focusing on matters such as the calories in food or their weight. This then allows them to build more regular and helpful habits around food, rather than swinging between periods of extreme dieting and over-eating. Therefore calorie-labels on foods could present a big set-back to their recovery journey.

  2. All calories were not created equal When individuals want to lose weight or to optimise their diet and lifestyle they often resort to calorie-counting in order to achieve this. Whilst this can be helpful for many, calories do also over-simplify the process of losing weight and optimising our health. In fact it is not just the quantity of food that we eat but also the quality of food that we eat that plays a role in our long-term health and weight. For example, eating 300 calories worth of avocado will have a very different effect on the body to eating 300 calories worth of sweets or potato chips. Now that is not to say that we should never eat sweets or potato chips but only to say that focusing too much on calorie counts when we are trying to optimise our diet/lifestyle/health can be unhelpful.

  3. It can cause guilt when eating When someone goes out for a meal, they usually want to enjoy the food that they are eating without feeling guilty about their food choices. However seeing on a menu just how many calories a food contains, may bring up feelings of guilt for someone whilst they are eating. Rather than focusing on enjoying their dessert, they are instead worrying about the fact that it has 600 calories in it and has taken them over their calorie allowance for the day. When I most usually see someone bingeing or over-eating is when they feel that they have eaten something "bad" or "blown it" - they then think "well I have ruined my plan now so I might as go crazy and start again from tomorrow". It is very often feelings of guilt and the accompanying thoughts that go along with this that drives unhelpful eating patterns. Calorie labels on foods may just increase guilt and shame around eating, rather than allowing people to just enjoy food.

  4. We all have very different bodies and food requirements The new guidelines require publication not just of the amount of calories in a dish but also of the total average number of calories an individual should be consuming daily. However we all have very different bodies and very different food and calorie requirements and even for each individual these requirements can shift throughout our lifestyle. It can be confusing and even unhelpful for someone to base how much they are feeding themselves on averages that apply across a population. This labelling requirement just places further emphasis on an individual using external signals to measure what they should be consuming, rather than relying on their own body's hunger signals and fullness cues.

Of course, as with everything, that is not to say that calorie-labels are completely awful or a bad idea for everyone. In some cases, they may allow people to make more informed food choices or they may make people more mindful of what they are eating. However, for some individuals, the calorie-labels can do much more harm than good. What are your thoughts on having calorie labels on meals you choose at restaurants and in cafes?


"Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy. It's not about nutrients and calories. It's about sharing. It's about honesty. It's about identity." - Louise Fresco