• Melinda Karth

We should be focusing on healthy relationships with food, not calorie counting

In mid-July of 2019, the BBC published an article discussing recent findings that calorie counting apps can exacerbate eating disorder susceptibility1. Less than two years later, proposals have been made to include calorie counts on both food menus and, more recently, drink menus. These proposals couldn’t have come at a more inappropriate time, with a 302% increase in people seeking eating disorder services from BEAT’s helpline, as well as the recent death of Nikki Grahame.

Including calorie counts on menus is more harmful than helpful for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it increases an individual’s risk for developing an eating disorder2.3.4. While the causes of eating disorders are still relatively unknown, we do know several risk factors. These include body dissatisfaction, peer and parental factors, anxiety and mood disorders, genetics, stress, and a variety of cognitive factors3. Nonetheless, while these risk factors increase the likelihood that someone will develop an eating disorder, there is no guarantee of this outcome. Additionally, it is also likely that some individuals with these risk factors are unaware of their susceptibility for developing an eating disorder. This is because the development of an eating disorder is usually a complex interaction of risk factors exacerbated by dieting, exercising, and additional individual features that gradually lead to disordered eating. Consequently, because we don’t necessarily know who is at risk for developing an eating disorder, it is irresponsible and dangerous to encourage calorie counting among the public. And, for those who do know that they are at risk for an eating disorder, it should be their fundamental right to protect themselves against furthering their illness and relapse.

Moreover, putting calorie counts on menus perpetuates the idea that individuals have complete control over their weight and body shapes. This gives individuals the responsibility to maintain their weights, which for many is a battle against their own unique hormonal, genetic, and environmental makeup. This illusion of complete control can also encourage anxious individuals to use calorie counting as a method for feeling more in control over their environments.

Considering these arguments, a more effective approach for encouraging healthy eating would be to educate people about nutrition and metabolism, while encouraging them to understand their individual bodies and health needs. Calorie counting, just like BMI index, is a poor method for determining one’s health status. Low calorie foods do not necessarily equate to a healthy diet. Furthermore, calorie counting suggests that food should be perpetually monitored. This changes our relationship with food, making it less about enjoyment, fuel, and social experiences and more about weight control. Encouraging healthy relationships with food is especially important for children, as it helps to ensure that these relationships thrive through adolescence and adulthood.

With the growing increase of eating disorders and the decrease of funding support for its treatment in the UK, it is vital to take all precautions to reduce the development of these illnesses. This includes not putting the public at risk for developing eating disorders by encouraging dieting behavior. Doing so could be a very costly mistake, both financially and in human life, that the NHS is not prepared to endure.


1BBC News. (2019). Calorie counting apps can exacerbate eating disorders. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-birmingham-48842898

2Romano, K., Becker, M., Colgary, C., & Magnuson, A. (2018). Helpful or harmful? The comparative value of self-weighing and calorie counting versus intuitive eating on the eating disorder symptomology of college students. Eating and Weight Disorders, 23, 841-848.

3Simpson, C., & Mazzeo, S. (2017). Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eating Behavior, 26, 89-92.

4Engagement with MyFitnessPal in eating disorders: Qualitative insights from online forums. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 53, 404-411.

5Keski-Rahkonen, A., & Mustelin, L. (2016). Epidemiology of eating disorders in Europe: Prevalence, incidence, comorbidity, course, consequences, and risk factors. Current Opinions in Psychiatry, 29, 340-345.

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