Calories on Children’s Menus: Has the Government Taken a Step Towards Promoting Harmful Diet Culture in Children and Teens?

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On a recent visit to Gordon Ramsay’s Bar and Brasserie in Mayfair, it was observed that caloric values had been published on the children’s menu – a menu that has been designed for children under the age of 8 who are dining with adults. The new regulations introduced by the government now require businesses with 250 employees or more to display how many calories every item on the menu, including children’s menus, contains.

This change is part of the government’s incentive to tackle obesity and help the public make healthier choices. However, this may harm many people and impact millions of young adults who struggle with eating disorders.

Approximately 1.25m people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, according to the eating disorder charity Beat. This includes conditions such as bulimia nervosa, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED). Up to 80% of 10-year-old children report having concerns about their bodies and attempting to diet.

Poorly planned weight-related initiatives may cause at-risk individuals to feel more weight-concerned. Initiatives may also undermine self-esteem by encouraging negative self-evaluations. The long-term effects could be a further increase in disordered eating and diagnosed eating disorders in children and young people in the UK.

Children Should Not Be Encouraged to Diet

Diet culture is harmful to children, teenagers, and young adults alike. With eating disorders at an all-time high and one in three children trying to diet by age 11, the UK has no shortage of problems surrounding food and body issues in young people.

Eating disorders and those in larger bodies are not opposite ends of the spectrum. Disordered eating and eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders, shapes, and body sizes. The one thing that we do know is that in some cases, eating disorders cannot be seen from the outside.

Critical bed shortages to treat adolescent eating disorders within the NHS have led to an increased crisis and more emergency admissions for teenagers and young people. Furthermore, self-harm and suicide attempts in those under 18 continue to rise in the UK, with The British Journal of Psychiatry reporting that 7% of children attempted to end their lives in 2021, with one in four self-harming. Rates for completed suicide in teenage girls under the age of 17 are at an all-time high. This correlates with reported body image concerns and a rise in eating disorders.

Counting Calories: Shame, Stigma, and Discrimination

Choosing food should be fun, especially for children! They should not have to worry about the food they choose when they go out for a meal, which is often meant to be a special occasion.

There is already significant discrimination toward children in larger sized bodies. One study from Italy found that children of an average weight were far less likely to be bullied than other children in larger bodies.[1] The consequences of bullying are long-reaching, often impacting children as they reach adulthood.

Including calories on menus can also affect how children see food. Labelling foods as good or bad, producing traffic light systems to rate food as high risk or red, amber, or green is unhelpful for children and adults. This moralises eating, making people feel good or bad because of what they eat. Encouraging children to make food choices deemed right or wrong may encourage a rigid approach to eating, which is inconsistent with guidelines for flexible, intuitive eating and nutritional health.

Children can be encouraged to understand the principles of making choices and be aware of dietary balance without the guilt, shame, and other negative emotions about dietary choices. Negative feelings around food and the body can rapidly progress through restriction, food avoidance, and binge eating cycles.

Young adults and children are often subjected to comments about their bodies. No matter how well-meaning, commenting on another person’s body is never okay. Nobody needs to hear another person’s view of their body. This applies to children too. Bodies are neutral spaces that do a fantastic job of housing and gathering organs that we need for life. They are not designed to fit into a particular style or size of clothes. We can all benefit from peaceful relationships with our bodies.

Does Dieting and Calorie Counting Harm Children?

Dieting is commonly undertaken to control weight and shape and may be a symptom of disordered eating. Many people who develop eating disorders may start with a diet that can quickly spiral out of control. Statistics have shown that around 20 to 25% of pathological dieters develop eating disorders.

This is not limited to adults, either. Disordered eating affects many young people and adults in the UK, and although it may not be a diagnosable eating disorder, it can still have severe mental and physical consequences.

With calories now being included on children’s menus, children are significantly more likely to develop eating disorders. At the very least, it harms them by teaching them to count calories at every meal and turns an enjoyable treat into a stressful occasion.

What Is Health At Every Size (HAES)?

Children (and adults) in larger sized bodies may hear the words obesity and public health crisis and relate them to their personal experiences. Declaring war on obesity promotes the message that living in a larger sized body is somehow not okay and that the body is a social problem, but this is not the case.

Health At Every Size is a relatively new concept that encourages acceptance of the body that we live in. It challenges medical and public health professionals to reconsider their definitions of health and the concept of health being weight-related. HAES encourages intuitive eating and considers that health is so much more than body shape and size.

The five principles of HAES are:

  1. Weight inclusivity – weight and body size do not matter, and specific weights should not be pathologised.
  2. Health enhancement – physical, social, economic, and spiritual health policies should be encouraged to boost overall health.
  3. Respectful care – the bias toward thinking people must be acknowledged and this inequality must be addressed.
  4. Eating for well-being – eating should be flexible, based on hunger, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than weight control.
  5. Life-enhancing movement – physical activity should be pleasurable and enhance life, rather than be designed to lose weight.

These principles teach people to accept their body as it is, without striving for it to be smaller. For children especially, being taught that they can be healthy at every size can be a significant mindset shift that frees them from the thoughts of weight and calories.

Conclusion

Including calories on menus looks set to do more harm than good in the UK. For a country already facing a staggering number of people with eating disorders, adding calories to menus will worsen the problem. This will be especially damaging for children, with calories included on their menus too. Young children should choose their meals based on what they like, not how many calories they contain.

Sources:

[1] Bacchini D, Licenziati M, Garrasi A et al. Bullying and victimization in overweight and obese outpatient children and adolescents: An Italian multicentric study. PLoS One. 2015;10(11):e0142715. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142715


Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on [email protected].

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