Calorie counts on restaurant menus will do more harm than good – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

In the 19th century, scientist Wilbur Atwater decided to discover the energy of different kinds of foods.

Calorie counting is not necessarily a good thing, says Alex Cole-Hamilton (Picture: Sinead Lynch/AFP via Getty Images)
Calorie counting is not necessarily a good thing, says Alex Cole-Hamilton (Picture: Sinead Lynch/AFP via Getty Images)

He used a device called a bomb calorimeter to measure the heat reaction created by food and human samples in chemical reactions. In simpler (and, excuse me, slightly cruder) terms, he blew up different kinds of food alongside human excrement to calculate the food’s energy value. These experiments formed the basis of the calorie system in place today.

Fast-forward 130 years and the SNP/Green government is set to follow in the Westminster Tories’ footsteps by implementing calorie counts on the menus of Scottish eateries in an attempt to tackle our obesity problem. Approximately 28 per cent of our population is clinically obese.

Whilst calorie counts appear to be a straightforward solution, the evidence is markedly less so.

Firstly, there is not substantive evidence that calorie counts have a significant effect on consumption. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, whilst they may create a small immediate decrease, this change is not sustained over time.

Moreover, calories themselves are not consistent measures. The amount of energy consumed varies based on the food itself, how it’s produced and the individual consuming it.

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Calories are not necessarily an indicator of health either. They don’t consider the composition of the food (like the fibre, protein, and carbohydrate content) which hold more bearing in nutritional value.

Secondly, our obesity crisis is heavily linked to poverty. Obesity rates are significantly higher in areas of greater deprivation. In the past decade, the percentage of children at risk from obesity has increased in the most deprived areas but decreased in the least deprived.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, more people lack the resources to purchase, store and cook healthy food, often leaving fast food as the only accessible option.

Calorie counts will also have a devastating effect on those suffering, susceptible to and recovering from eating disorders. A survey by national eating disorder charity Beat found 93 per cent of their respondents thought the scheme would have a negative effect.

Those with eating disorders often use calories as a form of drastically adjusting their intake of food, either increasing or restricting them to abnormal levels. This has detrimental effects on people’s bodies and minds.

Calories themselves can be triggering and anxiety-inducing as they serve as a reminder of the complex body dysmorphia and mental difficulties attached to eating disorders. Certainly, those vulnerable in England have already found as much.

It’s estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. This scheme could cause real harm to them.

There is a record number of patients in Scotland waiting for support from eating-disorder services whilst anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

We should be spending money on real support, not wasting it on superficial schemes that are unlikely to scrape the surface of our obesity problem.

We need to implement measures to increase the provision of mental health support alongside making nutritional food much more accessible and we need to do so as a matter of urgency.

Eating disorders often present in complex ways. If you think you or someone you know is struggling, visit Beat for information and support

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western