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Why Putting Calorie Counts on Restaurant Menus Is a Massive Waste of Energy

The impulse to offer customers information might be noble, but using the calorie to convey it limits effectiveness — and creates an unhealthy environment for diners with a difficult relationship with eating out

An example of a menu with calories listed alongside dishes.
An example of a menu with calories listed alongside dishes.
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From this week, restaurants with over 250 employees are legally required to list calorie counts on their menus in the U.K. The government says the new law is designed to reduce obesity in the population, and some restaurants, including Wetherspoons, already do it. But evidence to date suggests that calorie labelling has limited, short-term impacts on consumption while creating long-term discomfort for diners with or recovering from eating disorders.

That the law is limited to larger groups is a tacit admission of the administrative work required to have accurate information. In the U.S., where the Affordable Care Act introduced a similar law in 2010 (not implemented until 2018) the limit is determined by number of outlets, rather than employees. Here, large but single businesses, like the restaurant at the Ritz Hotel, must comply, even if such kitchens will make on the fly adjustments to dishes that will frequently render the figures moot, eliminating the advertised benefit of giving customers accurate information.

It’s also hard to square asking diners — some of whom will be experiencing current or after effects of eating disorders — to read about calories in one restaurant but not another makes any kind of sense.

Then there’s the “science.” The “calorie” is a simple, but imprecise measure of the relationship between nutrition, hunger, and satiety that focuses on quantitative appearances over qualitative content: the sort of medical thinking that has long lazily equated health with size. Per Jaya Saxena’s writing on the same issue in the U.S.: “Even if two meals have the same number of calories, your body is going to react differently depending on what you’re eating.”

Reducing dishes to numbers and meals to a tortured calculus of guilt and shame is scientifically limited and socially detrimental no matter the kitchen, adding another layer to the moralisation of an activity supposed to bring joy. Calorie counts on menus are, pound for pound, little more than a massive waste of energy.