Calorie-counting is an eating disorder
Imploring restaurants to list calorific content won’t help people lose weight, but it will zap the pleasure from eating.
Big Mac: 500. Regular fries: 250 or so. Diet soda: zero, as near as damn it. Total: 750-ish; 1,250 left for today.
Welcome to the world of calorie counting.
This is the kind of nutritional accountancy that our health guardians would like all of us to undertake every day. Now, some of the UK’s biggest restaurant chains will be joining in the fun by prominently displaying the calorie content of their menu items. And it’s not just the usual ‘ethical’ suspects like Marks and Spencer or Waitrose; fast-food joints like Pizza Hut and KFC and big workplace caterers like Compass and Sodexo are also jumping on the calorie bandwagon.
According to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), who together with the UK Department of Health came up with the idea that we should always be told how many calories we are consuming, by June more than 450 food outlets across Britain will have introduced calorie information, some on a pilot basis. Each company will ‘display calorie information for most food and drink they serve, print calorie information on menu boards, paper menus or on the edge of shelves, and ensure the information is clear and easily visible at the point where people choose their food’.
The UK minister for public health Dawn Primarolo, announcing the first batch of 18 companies taking part in the scheme, said: ‘We know that people want to be able to see how many calories are in the food and drink they order when they eat out. I want to see more catering companies join this ground-breaking first group to help their customers make healthier choices.’
For the moment, the scheme is voluntary, but it isn’t hard to imagine it becoming compulsory, if it takes off and is judged a ‘success’. That is already the situation in New York, where the city authorities imposed a requirement on chain restaurants to display nutritional information from March 2008. A similar idea was floated in Australia in January this year.
An obvious criticism of these schemes is that they are unlikely to make much difference. While those who are on a perpetual diet (mostly women) might modify their eating-out choices when presented with nutritional information, the vast majority of people who eat in fast-food restaurants are not going to choose their dinner based on how many calories it contains.
For all the token efforts of McDonald’s and others to present themselves in a healthier light, fast food is about fat, sugar and salt in the kind of quantities that induce apoplexy amongst our health guardians. That’s why we love it. Even when the companies themselves aren’t tempting us with supersized mega-burgers, customers ‘pimp’ the meals themselves: try trapping a McDonald’s chicken burger inside a cheeseburger for a two-dollar treat tastefully known as a ‘McGangBang’.
Moreover, even if these policies did manage to reduce our calorie intake, such cuts would be unlikely to make any difference to our waistlines. The experience from New York seems to be that diners consumed between 50 and 100 fewer calories per meal after the labelling rules came in. Given that a pound of solid fat contains around 4,000 calories, a simple back-of-a-burger-box calculation suggests it could take anything between 40 and 80 trips to your local chain for these labels to produce a single pound of weight loss. And that’s assuming that punters don’t reward their newfound restraint in restaurants by having a chocolate bar when they get home.
The whole business of weight loss is much more complicated than these schemes suggest. Calorie-controlled diets have a high failure rate. Most people who lose a substantial amount of weight pile it back on again over subsequent months or – at best – years. Nor is carrying a few extra pounds the death sentence it is often presented as; in fact, there is almost no difference in life expectancy between those of ‘normal’ weight and those who are labelled ‘mildly obese’. Even amongst those who really are grossly overweight, the relationship between food intake, weight and ill-health is more complex than people assume.
Indeed, as Morgan Spurlock discovered in his film Super Size Me, overeating is, for most people, quite hard work. You don’t need a calorie counter to tell you when you’ve grossed out. So why do some people feel satisfied with hamster-sized portions, while others aren’t happy unless they ‘go large’? Why do some fail to gain weight on a diet of lard-sodden burgers while others restrain themselves and can’t shift the weight? It’s a tricky, multi-faceted business, obesity. Reducing the problem to a matter of calories – just one aspect of the food we eat – hasn’t solved the ‘problem’ of growing waistlines in the past two or three decades, and it won’t solve it any time soon.
But even if this new policy were successful at shifting weight, encouraging an outbreak of obsessive calorie-counting disorder is a bad idea in itself. Food should be both sustenance and pleasure. The demand that we constantly check our desires against some government-imposed calorie-related target robs us of this joy, replacing it with guilt and fear instead; such schemes serve no other purpose than to persuade us that we must trust in the advice of the health authorities.
Rather than labelling everything we eat with calorie and fat contents, a far healthier attitude would be to leave us to make up our own minds about what we consume. We should be lickin’ our fingers, not counting calories on them.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Patrick Basham and John Luik looked at four fat myths about obesity and cancer. They also examined new research which taught obesity hysterics a lesson and attacked the proposals to remove children from obese households. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick said we should stop bullying fat kids. Rob Lyons was sick of the endless diet of government intervention. Chris Pile called for a halt to the food labelling wars. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.