Calorie labels on menus – helpful or not?

Calorie labels on menus – helpful or not?


Calorie labelling is now law in UK restaurants


Will it work for people who want to use it?

The UK has just introduced mandatory menu labelling for restaurants over a certain size, with calorie counts for individual dishes. We aren’t the first to have done this – the USA and Australia have already been down this path, so there is already some evidence about what effects on eating behaviour this has had.


According to a systematic review of the literature¹, labelling menus with calories alone did not have the intended effect of decreasing calories selected or consumed. But when some contextual nutrition information was added, people did tend to select and consume fewer calories.


The contextual information required by the new UK legislation is to have the words “adults need around 2000 kcal a day” printed on the menu. For some of us, seeing that a main course alone might be almost a whole day’s recommended intake may nudge us to order something different.


But this assumes that we want to reduce our calorie intake, and it also assumes that it will improve our health to do this. That’s not always true of course, which I’ll come back to shortly.


Do we choose what to eat on the basis of what we think will be healthy?

This week I attended the annual meeting of the British Feeding and Drinking Group, where academics who research aspects of eating and drinking present their current research. This is always fascinating, and I love hearing about cutting-edge clinically useful research right from the horse’s mouth.


This year, the prize for the best poster presentation was awarded to Glasgow University Ph.D. student Tess Davis with her supervisor Dr Esther Papies². The poster, which Tess kindly sent me so you can see it below, showed the results of two studies about the language that people use to describe foods that they typically eat, depending on whether they are omnivores or vegans.


What they found was that people used words to do with pleasure and taste when describing foods consistent with their own diet (meat for omnivores and plant-based foods for vegans). People however used words describing features such as healthiness or content of the food when describing the foods they didn’t tend to eat (meat for vegans and plant-based foods for omnivores). They concluded that using language concerned with healthfulness, content etc to describe plant-based foods does not increase their appeal to omnivores.


As what they were interested in was factors that may encourage people to shift to an environmentally more sustainable diet, their conclusion was that language focusing on pleasure and taste should be used rather than healthiness to market sustainable food choices.


Click to view image




These studies weren’t actually about calorie labelling but I wondered, seeing the poster, whether the calorie count (which purports to offer health-related information but tells you nothing about the tastiness of the dish) might simply be disregarded by anyone who tends to order what they will most enjoy.


And this brings me back to the people for whom calorie counting isn’t healthy – it’s actually dangerous.

Who might it harm?

I’ve seen an avalanche of posts on social media since the legislation came in to force about the unintended harm that calorie labelling can do. Dr Agnes Ayton, Chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists tweeted,


“It’s disappointing that none of these policy suggestions consider potential harm, or review of effectiveness”


Dr Ayton and other experts signed a letter to Health Minister Sajid Javid and Prime Minister Johnson saying,


“Since the legislation came in to play, many of us have been inundated by messages from individuals, carers of those affected by eating disorders, and those in partial recovery from eating disorders, who are already reporting the distress that this new measure is causing. Furthermore, we are very concerned that this will teach young people, children, and the general public to count calories instead of enjoying their meals. Calorie labels don’t say anything about the nutritional value and enjoyment of food: on the contrary, they introduce guilt and an unhealthy preoccupation with numbers.”


The signatories of the letter specifically asked the government to undertake to:

  1. Make a commitment that the evaluation of the new legislation to label restaurants with calories on will happen in the first year with a commitment that members from the eating disorder community and experts will be involved in this review.
  2. To make it mandatory for every single restaurant that meets the criteria for mandatory calorie labelling will also offer a no-calorie menu choice for those who wish to request this.
  3. To remove the labelling of calories on children’s menus in all restaurants immediately.


Calorie labelling might also be detrimental to those people living with obesity for whom eating out might already be stressful. There’s a chance that adding calorie counts to the menu may push people towards eating lower calorie counted choices, but will outcome research be able to measure what happens to someone’s eating when they get home afterwards?


How the different issues around calorie labelling might be relevant to you

Judging by my twitter feed, being very switched on to the potential for calorie labelling to be difficult for your fellow diners is likely to help. Whether you know someone you’re eating with has had difficulties with eating in the past, or whether you don’t, maybe ask the restaurant for two sets of menus and each person can choose which they use.


For myself I’ll be going for the label-free version.

What if they don’t have a calorie label-free version of the menu?

When Sophie Bartlett (@_MissieBee on twitter) went to eat at Dishoom in Manchester, she asked for a menu without calories. As they didn’t have one, her waitress Georgia scribbled them out herself so Sophie could have a calorie-label-free menu after all. Sophie’s tweet of this photo has had 16,000 likes so far!

I understand that Georgia has been commended by her employers for thinking on her feet in such a helpful way.





  1. Sinclair, S., M. Cooper and E. Mansfield (2014), “The influence of menu labeling on calories selected or consumed: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Vol. 114/9, pp. 1375-1388. e15.
  2. Davis, T and Papies, E (2022) What’s in a (dish) name? Greater use of consumption simulation language for diet-congruent foods. Poster presented online at the British Food and Drinking Group 46thAnnual Meeting

Photo by Gigi for Unsplash

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