Eating disorder charities said public health proposals needed to account for customers’ mental health and avoid “obesity shaming”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock outlined his vision to focus on preventing costly health problems in November, including an ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030. Consultations into the proposal closed last week and a decision is expected from the Department of Health and Social Care soon.
Marg Oaten, the secretary and co-founder for support group charity Seed Eating Disorder Support Services said an over-awareness of calorie information had contributed to her daughter’s illness.
She explained: “As mum of a daughter who developed an eating disorder at the age of 10, I know, first-hand, the devastating outcomes that when she was introduced to calories this fuelled her eating disorder to heights I never dreamed possible.
“She almost lost her life four times. She would scrutinise calories and fat content of food for hours upon hours.
“We watched as she was dying before our eyes and were powerless to do anything about it.
She added: “We don’t need calorific content on food packaging – advice on nutritional wellbeing would be much safer and have a more positive outcome.”
Perception shift required
National eating disorder charity Beat’s chief executive Andrew Radford said mandatory labels would have a counter-productive impact and agreed a focus shift was needed.
He said: “Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.
“Although we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive, while the number of calories consumed is not a reliable indicator of health.
“Public health campaigns need to consider people’s mental health as well as their physical health. They must move away from obesity-shaming to emphasising healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people.”
The charities shared their concerns in a letter to The Sunday Telegraph, which was signed by MPs including Andrea Jenkyns, Tim Farron and Crispin Blunt.
The letter stated: “We believe that proposals to introduce mandatory calorie counts on menus will be ineffective at reducing obesity rates and damaging to the mental and physical health of those suffering with eating disorders.”
Signatories agreed that available research suggested calorie counts have a negative impact on individuals with eating disorders.
“For example, those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa are likely to significantly reduce calorie consumption and participants with binge eating disorder are likely to increase calorie consumption in the menu label versus no label condition,” the letter added.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told The Sunday Telegraph that calorie information was already widely available in supermarkets but not in many out-of-home venues.
They continued: “Given that around a quarter of our calories come from food on the go, it’s right that we look at clear calorie counts on menus.
“Our priority is to protect children from ill health and the NHS is on track to treat 95% of all urgent cases of eating disorders in children and young people within one week and non-urgent cases in four weeks by 2020-21.”
Hospitality trade bodies have raised their own concerns that such Government health measures may unfairly damage hospitality businesses.
The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) said the introduction of mandatory calorie labelling by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) would be "another nail in the coffin" for pubs and urged for an exemption.
Public Health England has also consulted with businesses to finalise proposed calorie caps for individual food categories under its calorie reduction scheme.