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Does calorie labelling even work?

This year in April the UK mandated that restaurants with over 250 employees put calorie counts on menus. There’s been pushback from Beat UK, a charity helping those with eating disorders and disordered eating, requesting the UK government drop its plan. Their argument is backed by their research which found that calorie labelling puts people with eating disorders in states of distress and Beat frequently cites a 2018 research paper which found calorie labelling ineffective.

My goal this week is to explore the pros and cons of calorie labelling on menus. I'll walk through research behind calorie labelling, explain the behavioural design perspective of calorie labelling, and will finish off with the potential big pro I found out about the impact calorie labelling has.

What do I think? (i.e. what are my biases going into this)

At first, I was on board with Beat, but as I thought about my own experience with disordered eating and conversations with multiple friends, I began to question the research. I just came back from an all-inclusive beach holiday in Mexico, I didn’t worry about a calorie the entire week, but in my day-to-day life, I like to make informed decisions about what I eat and I like calorie labelling because it encouraged me to eat out more. This has made me more social which according to the New York Times is crucial to mental health.

Calories on menus have given me freedom, additionally, I believe obesity is an epidemic. The population of the UK sits around 68 million. There is an estimated 68% of the UK Male population and 60% of the UK female population whom are considered obese compared to at most 4.9% of those with eating disorders.

I do think eating disorders are an issue, but because of the volume of the issue I believe the need to solve the obesity epidemic is greater at this point in time. I’m telling you this because although I’m aiming to be neutral, I want you to know in advance I have a bias to prove why calorie labelling is good. So take everything below with a grain of salt, and make sure you look into the studies yourself.

BEAT's research

When I looked at the 2018 study cited, the study showed over half of the participants didn’t even notice the calorie information. Those who did were most frequently used to avoid high-calorie-menu items or have smaller portions. The study stated that using the labels was related to binge eating and weight-related concerns in men and women and suggested that nutrition professionals proceed with caution when it comes to calorie labelling.

BEAT also conducted a survey where experiences contrasted my own. Those surveyed said:

“Counting calories has been almost deadly for me and ruined my life.”

“The thought of seeing the calories on menus makes me feel so sick and sends me straight back into the depths of my eating disorder.”