Calorie counts on restaurant menus: helpful or harmful?

The new legislation has had a - err - mixed reaction to say the least. But could displaying calorie information on menus cause more harm than good?

Updated on • Written By Ellie Donnell

Calorie counts on restaurant menus: helpful or harmful?

As of 6 April 2022, restaurants in England are required to display calorie information on menus as part of a wider government campaign to tackle obesity in the UK. 

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, the regulation applies to ‘‘large businesses with 250 or more employees in England, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways’’.  

It’s probably one of the most controversial moves by the government to tackle rising levels of obesity in the UK by influencing people’s dining decisions when eating out, and the public's reaction to the initiative has been mixed to say the least.  

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For many, the chance to eat out is deemed a pleasure or a once-in-a-while treat that doesn't, in the grand scheme of things, have a significant impact on people’s overall lifestyle and dietary choices. So, do we really need to know how many calories are in our favourite burger or pizza? 

Public Health Minister Jo Churchill defended the move: ''Our aim is to make it as easy as possible for people to make healthier food choices for themselves and their families, both in restaurants and at home. That is why we want to make sure everyone has access to accurate information about the food and drink we order.’’ 

MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace also welcomed the change: “Any information or understanding of calorie content in our food – whether in takeaway menus or in restaurants – is a great idea. What we can measure, we can manage – and this is another step towards enabling people to make more educated choices.” 

However, many believe that introducing calorie information on menus simply won’t make a difference at all, or might even have a damaging effect on people’s food choices and eating habits. Eating disorder charity Beat argues that “we know from the people we support that including calories on menus can contribute to harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviours worsening.” 

Elsewhere, a 2018 review by Oxford and Cambridge universities showed that calorie labels could reduce caloric consumption by just 12% per meal.  

Whether or not displaying calorie information on menus will directly reduce obesity in the UK remains to be seen, with overall lifestyle factors including doing regular exercise and cooking healthy meals at home also playing a major role in tackling the crisis. For now, find out everything you need to know about calorie counts on menus including why they've been introduced and who it affects.  

Why have calorie counts been introduced on menus? 

The government’s decision to introduce calories on menus is part of a wider strategy to help tackle obesity in the UK by helping the public make healthier and better informed dining decisions. Indeed, almost two thirds of adults in England are obese, with a third of children leaving primary school either overweight or living with obesity.  

When will calorie counts on menus be introduced? 

The requirement for major restaurants to include calorie information on menus came into effect on 6 April 2022.  

Which restaurants will have to show calorie information on menus? 

All restaurants and cafes with over 250 employees will have to display calorie information on menus, including those offering takeaway menus. That includes all the UK’s major chains, such as Wahaca, McDonalds, Franco Manca, Subway, KFC and Pizza Express.  

However, for a few recognisable restaurant names, the move isn’t anything new. Pub chain Wetherspoon, for example, has included calorie information on its food menus for the last five years.  

Meanwhile, many restaurants already publish their calorie counts online, including Pizza Express and Wagamama.   

Can you request to see a menu without calorie information?

Yes - if you'd rather not know the calories of your meal when eating out, then customers are able to request a menu without calorie information if preferred. 

What's the impact of introducing calorie counts on menus?  

There is limited evidence as to whether introducing calorie counts on menus will have a significant impact on people’s meal choices. Calories don’t take into account the nutritional content of a meal, and could sway people from choosing a nutritionally dense meal that’s higher in calories for a less balanced meal that’s lower in calories. 

There has also been a strong reaction towards how it might impact those living with eating disorders, with the new regulation potentially encouraging a rise in the number of people with eating disorders. According to Beat, there is estimated to be over a million people in the UK living with an eating disorder and the new legislation will make eating out far more challenging for those who already find meal times hugely tricky. 

It's also been argued that people in the UK don't actually eat out that much. According to data from Statista in 2019, almost 40% of people eat out just once a month and spend the remaining days cooking at home, which suggests that choices made at restaurants are really just a drop in the ocean. 

However, with over 60% of adults overweight in the UK, something does need to be done to tackle the issue. At the end of the day, the decision lies with the diner, and educating people about how to make better food choices in general, whether that's eating out or cooking at home, is arguably a good place to start. 

In other foodie news, there's a new 'mega Greggs' moving into Leicester Square