This government treats its citizens like children

Fiona Townsley

April 14, 2022

Last week, we saw the latest edition in a series of unnecessary paternalistic policies. If fixating on our freedom of speech online was not enough to be getting on with, the government now wants to attempt to further control our diets.

It is estimated that 28 per cent of adults in England are obese and a further 36.2 per cent are overweight. This is a globally increasing rate as a result of higher intakes of energy-dense foods and an uptake in sedentary lifestyles. While the issue needs to be addressed, the policy of mandating restaurants to print calorie counts on their menus is hardly the answer. All it does is increase business costs and exacerbate existing disordered eating habits.

The justification is that the policy will ‘help to ensure people are able to make more informed, healthier choices when it comes to eating food out or ordering takeaways’. However, this claim is entirely lacking in evidence. A 2019 study across 104 restaurants in the US found that calorie labelling resulted in an initial 4 per cent reduction in calories per order, which subsequently diminished over one year of follow up. It is clear that any small difference to eating behaviour will not be maintained and therefore not serve to reduce UK obesity by any notable amount.

While unlikely to affect the behaviours of most people, this policy will exacerbate eating disorders. Estimates suggest that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder with atypical eating disorders the most common, and anorexia nervosa the most fatal, with a higher mortality rate than any other mental health disorder. When making hypothetical food choices from a menu that includes a calorie count, individuals with anorexia are more likely to order food with significantly fewer calories, whereas people with binge eating disorder are more likely to order food with significantly more calories. The impact on people who suffer from these disorders is likely to be significant, especially when comparing it to the very limited effect on the rest of the population.

This is not a policy of ignorance, but of blatantly ignoring all advice. In research published by a Parliamentary committee of all places, it was found that 93 per cent of people thought that the introduction of calorie labelling on menus would be ‘negative’ or ‘very negative’ for people with eating disorders and 84 per cent of people did not think that calorie labelling on menus could be introduced without posing risks to people with eating disorders. Given the Committee strongly urged the government to avoid such a policy it is concerning but not surprising to see its introduction without any new evidence.

The government notes that ‘the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact that obesity can have on people’s health and health outcomes’. However, more shockingly, it has highlighted, and even exacerbated a decline in mental health in the UK. The number of children and adolescents referred to a mental health specialist increased by 90 per cent between 2019 and 2021. It is completely inappropriate to sacrifice the nation’s mental health in a poor effort to reduce obesity and if the government glanced at a single statistic they too would realise the effects of their policy.

The use of calories is an incredibly flawed measure. Everyone needs a different daily amount depending on weight, age, activity, and metabolic rate meaning the information provided by restaurants is only half the picture. Bearing in mind that a calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water 1 degree celsius at sea level, we should not be encouraging people to obsess over this inaccurate, arbitrary method of measuring food content.

The Treasury has estimated that the cost of counting calories would be approximately £500 per annum per restaurant. Not only does this directly hinder the hospitality sector, an area of the economy still bruised from Covid but it provides significant perverse incentives. Restaurants will neglect to improve their meals, even improve the nutritional value of their meals, to prevent having to pay the price of calculating an arbitrary number to place on a menu. Simply put, by actively discouraging improvements to cuisine, the UK government is worsening this sector.

Unfortunately this is far from a one-off, miscalculated paternalistic policy from our current government but just another in a long trend. The Government is determined to decide our diet: introducing the sugar tax and banning adverts, promotions and certain locations for junk food. Government control is creeping into all aspects of life, restricting what people say online and how they protest.

This government is treating its citizens like children rather than autonomous adults capable of rational decision making. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next government policy was a state mandated bed time.


Written by Fiona Townsley

Fiona Townsley is a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute.

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