Could government calorie guidelines do more harm than good?

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This week, the government announced it would be releasing guidelines stipulating the maximum number of calories advisable in pizzas and pies offered by pubs and restaurants, the latest of a series of fairly absurd calorie-obsessed guidelines as part of Public Health England’s (PHE) plan to tackle “the obesity crisis”. Yes, maybe portion sizes should be a bit smaller, but 695 calories in a pie? It’s hard to think of a more arbitrary number.

First came the ‘One You’ campaign. You may not have heard of it, but you may have seen slightly condescending posters around urging you to eat 600 calories for lunch. If you’re lucky you’ll have no idea what 600 calories is and have never thought about it. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, right?

For those that do know what a calorie is, have their life ruled by calories, or suddenly realise they had been consuming 1000 calories for lunch on a regular basis with no adverse side effects, this sign may ring some alarm bells. How can PHE possibly know how many calories someone needs? How can a sporty teenage boy be expected to follow the same guidelines as a sedentary postmenopausal woman?

The Nanny State, driven perhaps by its success in reducing levels of smoking, is still on the warpath against growing levels of obesity. But is its newest campaign effective? Or could it ultimately do more harm than good?

Is the emphasis on calories misguided?

“Although we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counterproductive, while the number of calories consumed is not a reliable indicator of health,” says Andrew Radford, Chief Executive of eating disorder charity Beat. “Public health campaigns need to consider people’s mental health as well as their physical health, they must move away from obesity shaming to emphasizing healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people.”

True, advising people to eat 600 calories for lunch could be argued to be a “healthy behavioual change”, and true, the PHE campaign also encourages people to exercise more and reduce their drinking, as well as encouraging people to take care of their mental health.

“Although we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counterproductive.”

Nonetheless, an emphasis on calories alone when it comes to diet is pretty pointless. Six hundred calories’ worth of crisps, while delicious, isn’t particularly nutritious, and the numbers turn food into a homogenous sort of medicine rather than a source of pleasure. This was exactly the problem when the government first warned against fat some twenty years ago, and companies went on a crazed drive to replace the fat content in everything with…sugar.

Should we put calories on menus?

To add fuel to the fire, another idea was posited a few months after the launch of the One You campaign, with officials proposing that restaurants should provide calorie information on it’s menus ‘to help people make more informed choices’, a surefire way to take out the enjoyment of eating out for anyone who has, for example, previously had an eating disorder.

Part of the problem when it comes to policing food intake is that it further eliminates the basic human concept of eating what you feel like when you feel like it and stopping when you are full. Courtney, 22, who had anorexia in her teenage years, says she was “obsessed” with calories and portion sizes. “I would have to stick religiously to portion sizes labeled on packets, and I think that’s damaging,” she says. “I think we should be encouraged to embrace food and be offered real food, and I do think calorie labelling takes away people’s ability to eat naturally.”

Part of the problem when it comes to policing food intake is that it further eliminates the basic human concept of eating what you feel like when you feel like it and stopping when you are full.

It is well known that any diet or restriction of food is likely, in many cases, to lead to weight gain later down the line, or could spark a disordered relationship with food. Indeed, commercial weight loss companies are designed purely to ensure that people have to keep coming back to them for life.

The amount of people who are obese in the UK is rising, the amount of people with eating disorders is rising, and government intervention of this type just isn’t working. On top of this, many obese people have eating disorders. Telling someone how many calories are in their chosen meal will not solve any of these problems. At best people will ignore it, at worse it will perpetuate the huge array of mental illness affecting people of all shapes and sizes, and further perpetuate the “are you being good or naughty today” food dichotomy.

Why education is better than numbers

Despite this, Alyson Carter, a registered nutritional therapist, does think providing guidelines on menus can be helpful in some cases. “It’s interesting how many people just don’t understand the amount of calories in food,” she says. “However, it’s education where we really need to be focusing, not just the total amount of calories in things.” She adds that it’s important to understand that one size doesn’t fit all and, when taken alone, the spotlight on calories is not conducive to changing eating habits.

While Courtney, too, says she can understand the government’s reasoning behind labelling, she does think the obsession with numbers is controlling. “Maybe if I wasn’t aware of how many calories I should have, I wouldn’t have so many issues with using binge eating as a coping mechanism when I’m stressed,” she says. “We need to work towards looking at what is in our food and offer food that is better for you, food that looks like food.”

“As a nutritionist, I don’t look at calories with my clients who are wishing to lose weight. Rather we look at a healthy eating plan that is going to be balanced.”

Andrew adds that adding calorie counts to menus can cause “great distress” for people suffering from or who are vulnerable to eating disorders, as “evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds”.

Alyson, too, agrees that trying to tackle obesity by prescribing calorie limits isn’t necessarily working, and she believes that education, at a young age, is the real key. “As a nutritionist, I don’t look at calories with my clients who are wishing to lose weight. Rather we look at a healthy eating plan that is going to be balanced,” she says. Nonetheless, she does maintain that giving people the total number of calories in a meal can be a good thing because a lot of people simply do just eat too much.

All are valid points. Ultimately, it is hard to see how some restaurants labelling menus and reducing some portion sizes will reduce obesity. What could reduce obesity is offering people a better work/life balance, ensuring everyone gets paid enough to afford quality food, improving quality of life, increasing access to parks and open spaces, making roads safer for cycling and walking, reducing car usage, teaching basic cooking skills at school, and ensuring people are not so stressed that they don’t have time to cook proper meals.

Until we reach this utopia, which is sadly looking ever more unattainable, maybe trying to get people to reduce their calorie intake could help in the interim, it’s hard to say. But a child growing up overweight probably isn’t overweight due to eating too many pies over the 695 calorie benchmark.

Imogen Robinson

Deputy Editor, The Femedic

Imogen joined The Femedic after working as a news reporter. Becoming frustrated with the neverending clickbait, she jumped at the chance to work for a site whose ethos revolves around honesty and empathy. From reading articles by doctors to researching her own, and discussing health with a huge variety of women, she is fascinated by just how little we are told about our own bodies and women-specific health issues, and is excited to be working on a site which will dispel myths and taboos, and hopefully help a lot of women.

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