Calorie counter

How arbitrary numbers altered my relationship with food

It’s been nearly two years since the government introduced calorie labelling on menus in Britain. Two weeks, as the old saying goes, is a long time in politics, so two years can feel like a lifetime. Long enough for seismic shifts on the domestic and international stage to mean we don’t even care about silly little things like that any more? Yes – calorific values might take a little bit of pleasure out of our indulgent Sunday roast, but after a couple more pints we’ve forgotten they exist (we need to, after being told the calories in the pints, too).

When calorie labelling was first introduced, though, back in April 2022, the legislation was unpopular and controversial. Supposedly it was meant to help Britain tackle the “growing obesity crisis”. Too many of us were too big, the government said. They tracked us with BMI measurements and ignored growing dissent in the medical and scientific communities that exposed these arbitrary numerical definitions of health as outdated and unhelpful. Even Boris Johnson joined the chorus; a soundbite of the then prime minister telling us: “Ladies and gentlemen I was too fat,” went viral on TikTok. The idea was that if we knew what we were putting into our bodies maybe we’d think twice about it and make healthier choices.

At the time I thought I was good, fine, above it all. Like an ex on Instagram, I forced myself not to look at the calorie counts on menus and told myself I was over it. But you always see that ex when you least expect them, on the bus or across the room at a party, and it sends you spiralling all over again. It’s the lack of preparation that stings and panics.

This is what happened when I went away to a villa in Tuscany this summer, one of those middle-of-nowhere places where your options are to buy your food from a local, non-English-speaking shop or to eat in a tiny local restaurant where nobody writes the calorie count of spaghetti carbonara on their blackboard menu. But it turned out the urge to check everything – to flip the box of biscuits and read the nutritional information underneath – had so imperceptibly become muscle memory for me that I found myself heavy breathing in a tiny supermarket aisle, frantically trying to google-translate the label on an Italian loaf.

Long before the labelling law was introduced, many people in Britain had been aware of the dangerous world of calorie counting

Two things struck me: one, how ridiculous my behaviour was, in allowing these arbitrary numbers to dictate what I ate, what I bought and where I went. And two, how insidious the system of calorie labelling on menus really was back home. As fine and good and healthy as I thought I was – this calorie counting had wormed its way into my brain. it had given me the illusion of control and triggered me when that illusion of control disappeared. It was a sobering moment. I wanted to see the bread’s calorific value with an urgency that showed it wasn’t good for my health at all.

Long before the labelling law was introduced, many people in Britain had been aware of the dangerous world of calorie counting and the way it can quickly become all-consuming. Research from beateatingdisorders.org.uk tells us 1.25m people in the UK currently have an eating disorder. Millions more, even if they now look and feel healthy, describe themselves as “in recovery” rather than “recovered”; the tricky business of moving on from the darkest and most dangerous low points of restriction, purging or disordered eating patterns is a lifelong task. Because food is everywhere – and if calorie counts are everywhere, too, it’s oh so easy to set back that lifelong recovery.

Until that moment in Italy I had considered myself delightfully untriggered during the two years that calorie counts had been on menus. The pre-emptive measures some chains had taken to provide extra, calorie-less menus (available on request) had helped, but equally, on a grimmer level, made little difference. The government-approved menus simply confirmed the calorie counts I already knew from years spent googling foods or logging into calorie apps. These numbers, this useless information, lodged itself like a parasite in my teenage brain and has stubbornly refused to leave.

Looking back, there was a Sliding Doors moment in which, aged fourteen, I didn’t discover how many calories were in a Mars bar and let that dictate the rest of my life, but alas that’s not the universe we live in. We live in the calorie-label-on-menus universe.

We have bigger problems in Britain than calories staring us in the face every time we go out to eat. But as a policy it’s just another symptom of a pointless, unhealthy government. And we can still feel a little sick about it.

Róisín Lanigan is a writer and editor based in Belfast and London

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