Boris’ calorie count initiative: Mixed messages mess with mental health

By Lauren Taylor |

With the reopening of the hospitality industry, the government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme sounded like a dream come true to most of us, right? As a self-confessed pub and restaurant enthusiast, 50% off food and drinks on selected days in August seemed incredible. Less incredible is the extra side of guilt – one we did not order. 

Alongside the scheme – introduced last month to help the struggling industry recover from the Coronavirus pandemic – Boris Johnson and his government are now encouraging restaurants to include the number of calories alongside the meals on the menus. Yes, you read that correctly. During our hour or two of escapism, chatting with friends and family while eating delicious grub, we will be opening our menus to see exactly how much we are putting into our bodies. I’m not sure about you, but that is the last thing I’d want to be thinking about while waiting for my fish and chips on a Saturday afternoon. 

Calories on menus has minimal impact on public health | Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

This new initiative is one of the first steps in the “Better Health” campaign that was announced in late July, launched alongside the decision to end ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy food. By tackling obesity, the government hopes to beat COVID-19 faster, whilst alleviating the burden on the NHS.

Despite my complaining, there are some benefits of this “Better Health” scheme. Calorie counts will make us more aware of what we are putting into our bodies, hopefully encouraging us towards healthier choices. But whilst healthier alternatives remain more expensive, will better choices be within reach of many families, in spite of the potential benefits?

The question is: will this campaign really do any good? Will it achieve what it is supposed to achieve?

There are many other problems with the campaign. One of the more serious amongst them concerns eating disorders and other related mental health concerns. A quick scroll through Twitter after the announcement was made brought something to my attention – restaurants and fast food places are crucial to the eating disorder recovery process. Eating out reportedly allows individuals to immerse in tastes and textures they may have previously loved, slowly reigniting their interest in food. The recovery process will be made increasingly difficult with a calorie count staring up at them from the page. With mental health services in the UK still majorly underfunded, as reported by the Mental Health Foundation, those recovering often have to rely on other ways to access support. This new measure seems to remove yet another potential resource.

Are we just creating a gateway to mental health issues? | i yunmai/Unsplash

In the U.S, it is a legal requirement for pubs and restaurants to include calories on their menus. Nevertheless, studies published in  The Telegraph have found that including calorie counts on menus has minimal impact on public heath. In short, the question is: will this campaign really do any good? Will it achieve what it is supposed to achieve? Or are we just creating a gateway to further damage?

It seems as though contradiction has become a trend in our recent government, with mixed messages leaving us uncertain as to what, exactly, they want us to do. The “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme urged us to support and make the most of these facilities, while on the other hand, the new and likely unsuccessful campaign to “fight obesity” makes us want to do anything else. 

Let them be! | Elevate/Unsplash

Essentially, the hypocritical messages from the government seem to be causing greater harm, with little change anticipated from the experts. Those with mental health disorders will suffer, and at any rate, if someone wants to order a piece of cake, they will hopefully continue to eat and enjoy it, regardless of what number is on the page. There are surely better ways to deal with this issue, but whilst Johnson and his team work it all out, we should continue to go out, enjoy our meals and support our local businesses! After all, that is what they want us to do after this pandemic, right? 

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The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.