Calories on menus will prevent only 37 deaths per year, study finds

Calorie menus are aimed at reducing obesity-related deaths in England
Calorie menus are aimed at reducing obesity-related deaths in England

Putting calories on food menus will postpone just 37 deaths a year, a study in the Lancet Public Health journal has found.

The Government forced large restaurants across England to label every meal with its calorie count to tackle obesity, under a flagship initiative in April 2022.

This was despite mixed evidence on its benefits, concerns about the cost of its implementation for businesses and fears it could drive up disordered eating.

For the first time, experts have modelled the likely impact of the scheme in England, and found that it will prevent or postpone 730 deaths from heart disease over 20 years – or just 36 to 37 a year – of the 830,000 or so that are expected overall.

The cost of making and maintaining calorie menus, which require expert input, staff familiarisation, and inspections by local authorities, was predicted to cost tens of millions of pounds as part of an impact assessment – but save the NHS £430 million over 25 years on obesity-related diseases.

Businesses which fail to comply face fines of £2,500.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool said putting calories on all “out-of-home” places to eat – rather than about 20 per cent currently required by law – would delay about 9,200 deaths over the 20 years, or 460 each year.

It assumed obesity prevalence would be 27 per cent in England by 2041, with the measure reducing this by 0.31 per cent and an expansion to all businesses reducing it by 2.65 per cent.

The authors used previous studies from the US and Canada to estimate that people ate 47 calories fewer per meal as a result of the menu labelling system.

Martin O’Flaherty, professor in epidemiology and author at the University of Liverpool, said the research showed “a much larger impact is possible if the Government were more ambitious”.

Dr Zoe Colombet, epidemiology and public health lecturer at the University of Liverpool, said the Government should continue to “strengthen England’s obesity strategy with a wide range of policies”.

Calorie labelling on menus has not yet been introduced in Wales and Scotland.

The researchers acknowledged their study had limitations, including the potential for “unintended consequences” of labelling food, and the cost-effectiveness of the scheme.

Calorie menus ‘harm people with eating disorders’

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, said that “quality evidence already exists that shows calories on menus harm people with eating disorders”.

“A 2017 study found that people with anorexia or bulimia would order food with far less calories when the menu included calories, and that people with binge eating disorder ordered food with significantly more calories,” he said.

He added that nine in 10 people affected by eating disorders found the introduction of calorie labelling had a negative effect.

Dr Duane Mellor, a dietitian from the Aston Medical School in Birmingham, said there was evidence calories on menus could have the opposite effect, with some people trying to eat more because “it is seen as better value for money”.

“It is important to look at the overall nutritional balance of meals and how they fit into an overall dietary pattern. It is not sensible to focus on foods solely on their energy content to assess how healthy or not they are,” he added.