“This type of conversation pours shame all over our food”

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Lizzie Pook
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From prime time TV shows to restaurant menus, we’re increasingly being told to count our calories. But the practice can be toxic and damaging…

You may have noticed, but something’s afoot in the world of food. A debate is raging, tearing through Twitter like a rampant cyclone, collecting barbed comments and countless hot takes as it blusters furiously by. And it’s all about something small. Something tiny. A single measure of energy: the calorie.

In July, the Department of Health announced its plans to force restaurants, cafes, takeaways and online delivery services to display food calorie counts on menus. This week, eating disorder charity Beat expressed concern that displaying the numbers could cause distress to sufferers, who may have spent a lifetime battling disordered eating or obsessive calorie counting. 

As well as pointing out that calories aren’t necessarily a reliable indicator of how healthy a meal really is (a single avocado, for example, contains the same number of calories as a small slice of pizza), Beat chief executive Andrew Radford said: “Sufferers often speak of an ‘eating disorder voice’ that tells them to avoid certain foods and overrides what their body wants, and calorie counts can act as a trigger for such harmful thoughts.

“Public health campaigns need to consider people’s mental health as well as their physical health. They must move away from obesity-shaming to emphasising healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people.”

Calories aren’t necessarily a reliable indicator of how healthy a meal really is

Too right. This would be an expensive and unnecessary burden for small, independent restaurants whose menus change on a daily basis. And I, for one, can think of nothing worse than being told, as I settle down to a casual dinner with friends – in order to relax, to escape, to release some of the day’s tension – that the meal I’m about to eat will represent exactly 900% of my recommended daily calorie allowance. Sod. That.

It’s a debate that has recently stretched to what we watch on TV, too. Take Bake Off, for example. A fondant-filled, custard-slathered, plaited brioche feast of a show. We listen with bated breath to what judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith have to say about soggy bottoms, overpowering turmeric flavours and floury bakes. But we don’t ever, ever want to hear them utter the c-word.

But alas, they do. Much has been said about Prue Leith’s well-practised ‘Is it worth the calories?’ quip: a phrase she churns out time and time again when presented with a decent Victoria sponge (‘worth the calories’, apparently), or a bad choux pastry (not ‘worth the calories’, as it turns out). This joyless, guilt-inducing way of talking about indulgence is toxic and damaging. It simply must stop.

Bake Off is not a show about calories, It is a show about massive, ridiculous desserts. That’s literally the whole point of the thing. Eating out in restaurants is not a way to stay lean. It’s a comfort, a treat, a means of feeling good about ourselves and temporarily living a life that we cannot, and would not, always want to maintain. 

Prue Leith calorie catchphrase Bake Off

Much has been said about Prue Leith’s well-practised ‘is it worth the calories?’ quip

Sending out messages about checking our calorie consumption during activities that are ostensibly all about the glorious joys of eating sends confusing messages to all those who participate in them – whether it’s the impressionable 13-year-old gearing up to bake for their very own school charity sale; be it those whose lives are currently, or have in the past, been blighted by eating disorders; or those like me, who have always had a complicated relationship with food, who turn to it when they are sad, or nervous, or angry, or happy – those who then take whatever opportunity they can to remind themselves they are ‘fat’, or ‘greedy’, or should be ‘ashamed’ of what they’ve just done to their bodies. 

Because this is yet another example of how eating food – you know, that thing we have to do to keep us alive – is conflated with guilt. These conversations take a bulging bottle of shame and squeeze it all over our breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea. Not cool. And really, this shouldn’t be happening. Not now. Especially at a time when the body positive movement is making such strides – with celebrities like Keeley Hawes calling out erroneous ‘diet’ stories on Twitter, and plus-sized supermodels appearing on the front of influential magazines targeted at teens.

Studies have shown that Instagram and other forms of social media, where lithe sorts in athleisure gear discuss meal plans and squat thrusts, can actively contribute to the development of orthorexia (a destructive fixation with exercise and healthy eating that has links to anorexia). How is a show that is beamed directly into the living rooms of millions of people any different? How can being told to chart everything that goes into our bodies ever be a good thing? 

Eating out is supposed to be a comfort, a treat, a means of feeling good about ourselves

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that health isn’t a concern, or that obesity isn’t a dangerous thing – given that it’s estimated to affect one in every four adults in the UK, it would be remiss of me to imply that it wasn’t. What I am saying, however, is that this is really not the right place for that sort of discussion.

Because Bake Off shouldn’t be a public service announcement. Nobody is watching it expecting handy tips on how to live well. The show is sheer unadulterated comfort TV.

Equally, eating out in restaurants offers a safe haven from the mundane machinations of the world. I don’t go out to dinner to remind me to exercise. I do neither of these things because I want to be reminded that my body needs vitamins, or minerals, or vegetables, or water, to survive. All I want to consider is a decent meal with friends, the correct amount of butter cream to be slathered atop a fondant fancy, and Noel Fielding’s glorious new KD Lang hair. 

So, can you leave us in peace to enjoy our meals now, please? 

Images: Unsplash