Tackling the Global Obesity Epidemic: From calorie counting on menus to better food education. What effect does this issue have on the industry?

It is well known that in the UK, along with many of the developed countries in the western world, obesity is a growing issue. In the UK, it has been six months since the government brought in a scheme where all calories must be labelled on menus in restaurants and bars. Has this measure had a positive impact on people’s food choices? Is this a scheme that should be implemented elsewhere? And is changing people’s food consumption habits having a negative impact on the hospitality industry?

The government initially implemented this scheme to assist individuals in making informed decisions about eating out and being proactive in their health. Displayed calories may mean individuals are considering their nutrition more closely. However, this may not be the best option. Many nutritionists and health professionals have stated that this concept is ineffective and, in some cases, counterproductive to improving the national obesity crisis. A major concern of many is that labelling calories promotes disordered eating, as well as giving a ‘one size fits all’ approach to healthy lifestyles. The number of individuals struggling with eating disorders is at an all-time high and it has been suggested that displaying calories can have a harmful and triggering effect on these individuals.

Furthermore, calorie consumption is scientifically not a particularly effective measure of health. It is easy to assume that higher calorific options are the poor choice, however often these meals are higher in nutrients, more balanced and could leave individuals feeling more satiated than lower calorie options. Additionally, calories don’t equate directly to weight gain or loss due to individuals having varying metabolisms. To put it simply, whilst the numbers on a menu may make a dish appear higher calorically than another meal,the body will absorb varying amounts of energy depending on variables like fibre, fat, and levels of processed ingredientsused.

Many people ordering meals based solely on a consideration of the calories, can often have limited understanding of a medical view on health and obesity. Misinformation that calories are inherently bad, demonises many types of food. Perhaps, instead, more energy needs to be spent developing an understanding of health and nutrition at a younger age. Studies have repeatedly shown that greater education aroundfood and health reduces the risk of later developing obesity. Is the government attempting to use a quick fix approach to long term health?

Research has additionally shown that the display of calorific content on menus can mean that people are more likely to share high calorie meals with friends. This has an effect on revenue for restaurants and bars. By making people aware of their consumption we are directly affecting how much people are spending whilst eating out. Understandably many establishments are less keen to have calories displayed when this is the financial impact.

Obesity is a complex issue and as further research is done on its causes and effects, we become more aware that simple fixes like assuming people can make food choices based oncalorific content is most likely not the best answer. Medically speaking, the increase in obesity is more likely to be caused due to an increase in sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of ultra-processed foods and greater access to a range of foods in supermarkets. Obesity is a difficult challenge we are faced with, yet, perhaps a more holistic and educational approach should be taken to tackle this issue? Is a possibly misleadingnumber on a menu realistically having a positive effect on our food choices or are we trying to simplify a much more challenging health issue?

Written by Lexie Cook, EP Business in Hospitality