Rubbing calorie counts in diners’ faces is going too far – The Irish Times

If governments intend to introduce radical interventions into our private lives, those interventions should be worth it. Recent legislation in the UK now requires certain restaurants – chains that employ more than 250 people – to display calorie counts on their menus. And that’s how I learned, in spite of myself, that the burger from a nearby restaurant contains well over half the recommended daily intake for a woman my age.

Britain may have a head start. But adding calorie counts to menus was mooted by Irish politicians in 2015, and many times in the years since, such legislation has loomed on the horizon. A poll conducted in conjunction with the Journal found nearly two-thirds of respondents approved of the idea. But since the advent of the new rules in the UK, it has formed the basis of an endless spin.

It’s a discouraging way to think of restaurants, places reserved for conviviality and gluttony. And bogeying calories is an extreme measure, like taking a hammer out of a piñata. It also forces us to revisit the questions we are being asked during the pandemic about the role of the state in our lives. How happy are we to accept top-down interference on something as personal as what we choose to eat?

Of course, the intentions may well be pure. In 2021, the European Commission noted that Ireland was the second most obese nation in the bloc. In the UK, obesity costs the state £6.1billion a year, a figure that is set to rise. We know that overweight adults are at a much higher risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid-19. It’s reasonable to suggest, particularly on this last concern, that something could be done to improve this.

And perhaps the food we decide to eat is entirely within government intervention. It’s a private choice. But we have accepted serious reforms in the area of ​​smoking, for example. So it’s easy to see how such a policy came about and why so many people approve of it. The steps at least seem logical: obesity is a problem and we can take steps to reduce it, so posting calories on menus must be a good idea.

Unfortunately, this thinking is not only flawed, but devoid of empathy and, in extreme cases, potentially harmful. And as with most simple and alluring fixes, the evidence supporting its effectiveness is pretty paltry.

A 2019 study by the Institute for Economic and Social Research found that people were likely to consume fewer calories when information was included in menus. But New York adopted the policy in 2008, and a New York University study found it had no impact. In 2018, another study – commissioned by the US Department of Health and Human Services – found that people consumed an average of 38 fewer calories. It’s about the same as a small cup of plain asparagus. And since calorie labels are mandatory on menus across the United States, its population hasn’t gotten any slimmer.

The movement is myopic too. James Hamblin, a senior lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health, wrote in the Atlantic that we shouldn’t reduce obesity simply to personal decisions: “It’s misleading on many levels and has proven time and time again to be ineffective, even counterproductive. “Instead, we should understand obesity as a complicated phenomenon closely tied to classroom and upbringing. Calorie counts on menus relieve governments of their responsibility to address the root causes and instead allow them to impose a moral burden on the individual.

It therefore seems that the best scenario is that the effectiveness of such a policy is unclear. The most likely scenario is that its effects are negligible. And all this before we have taken into account the damage it could do to people with eating disorders – pervasive and deadly diseases whose prevalence has increased in Ireland during the pandemic. BEAT, a UK charity specializing in eating disorders, has a special advice page dedicated to managing calorie counts on menus. Anecdotally, my friends who have struggled with eating disorders in the past are nervous about eating out.

And we can be sure of one thing: displaying calories in diners’ faces only takes away the pleasure of eating. He patronizes the customer (of course, the burger was never going to be the healthy choice). And for women who are forced to worry about their weight in every corner of their lives, it is unduly cruel to add another string to that bow. All this in the name of what? An ineffective policy?

Ultimately, the question is political. How far are we ready to accept the presence of the state in the smallest details of our lives? And are we comfortable with governments forcing restaurants to absorb the cost of doomed political efforts?

It is the government’s job to balance the harms and analyze the trade-offs. But it seems that the advantage of calorie counting policies is that they provide the appearance of being proactive. And the downside? They are not really proactive at all.

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