Johnson’s New Obesity Laws are Terrible and I Can Prove It

Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

I’m not sure whether it comes from a place of abject stupidity or performative bureaucracy, but Boris Johnson, even by his own standards, has really reached a new low. His new ‘Obesity Strategy’ to combat COVID-19 is a ridiculous mess that is at best just pointless, authoritarian government intervention and at worst damaging to the most vulnerable in society.

Published on the 27th of July, the government announced a new anti-obesity package that included various legislation such as: no junk-food advertising before 9pm, a ban on ‘Buy One Get One Free’ deals, and a new campaign to tackle the obesity epidemic. I could go on for pages and pages about how these laws are just as useless as they are damaging to the poorest in our society, but instead I want to focus on the dumbest one being introduced: Calories must be displayed on restaurant menus.

At first glance, this seem like a sensible way to make it easier for people to pick healthier eating choices when eating out. Surely if someone is obese or near the obesity threshold, they’ll choose the healthier option when going out for a meal? This certainly seems the case, otherwise the government wouldn’t have implemented these laws, right?

There are multiple layers of stupidity to unpack here, but let’s start with the first, and most obvious question: ‘What is a calorie and why should I count it?’

A calorie is measured as a unit of energy. It is defined as ‘The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.’ So for example, if you completely burned 35 grams of crisps (about one bag) and it heated 10 grams of water by 16 degrees, you know that those crisps have 160 calories per bag.

So that’s what a calorie is, but why should we use it to control our diets? Well, science says you probably shouldn’t. Experiments to determine the calorific content of foods are done in something called a ‘bomb calorimeter.’ This device tries to ensure that every drop of energy from that food is burned in a sealed container and used to heat the water above it, but that’s not how a human body works. Just because you eat something containing 100 calories absolutely does not mean that you will take 100 calories of energy from that food because the human body is wildly inefficient.

It’s also worth pointing out that calories are not equal. There are more calories in an apple than there are in a biscuit, but which one do you think is healthier? Exactly. Did you know a loaf of Hovis Seed Sensations has 45 more calories per 100g than a loaf of Hovis Soft White? Does this mean white bread is healthier for you than brown bread? Absolutely not. Brown bread provides you with 10 times more essential fiber and protein than its white counterpart. Any nutritionist worth their salt would recommend brown over white for a healthy, balanced diet.

Another problem with calories is that the bomb calorimeter itself is also questionable at best. This makes the calories on food packaging more like very rough guesses rather than concrete facts. Combine this with the fact that a person’s weight in a western country is about 70% genetic anyway (Source= Dr Robert Plomin’s research and book ‘Blueprint’) and calorie-counting becomes a pretty ridiculous thing to do.

So, we’ve determined that calorie-counting is almost useless for the average person, even if you are watching your weight (which not all people struggling with obesity choose to do). Now we can talk about a more pressing issue here: eating disorders.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric problem, with Anorexia Nervosa having the highest death rate of them all. Anorexia nervosa is a disorder characterised by keeping one’s weight as low as possible by reducing calorie intake to dangerous levels.

Plastering ‘calorie-counts’ everywhere will not only undoubtedly increase the mortality rates for eating disorders, but it will also encourage people, primarily adolescents, who are on the verge of an eating disorder to tip over into full-blown Anorexia or Bulimia.

Calorie counting has been cited hundreds of times in the past 20 years as one of the main habits that people who end up with eating disorders first fall into. By obsessing over calorie numbers, a ‘calories are bad’ complex arises, but this could not be further from the truth. We, as humans, require calories to stay alive. By having government intervention that re-enforces the idea that ‘calories are bad’, you are needlessly re-enforcing a myth perpetuated by toxic diet culture.

It genuinely baffles me that considering we have so much overwhelming scientific and psychological evidence against calories, the government would choose to implement such an idiotic, populist idea. This new set of failures only proves what we’ve all suspected for far too long; Boris Johnson and his cabinet are some of the most universally braindead, scientifically illiterate human beings in the UK.

Words by Olly Singleton

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  1. Having just finished reading this article, I must take issue with the general premise that the government is being especially “stupid” by putting calories counters on restaurant food menus.

    The author makes the case that calorie counting on restaurant menus is “one of the dumbest things” because, a) Calorie counting in order to lose weight is unscientific, and b) Calories counting can harm people with – or at risk of – eating disorders.

    While it is possible that calorie counting is useless, I think the article fails to put this in its proper context.

    The argument is framed as if it were somehow originally the current government’s idea that counting calories was a good idea, but this ignores the fact that calories have been displayed on foodstuffs in shops (thanks to the EU) for several years with no marked increase in rates of anorexia.

    Additionally, and more ironically, the article provides examples of where calorie counting is counter-intuitive in products such as; apples and biscuits, and, Hovis seed sensation and Hovis white… all products that already carry calories counts on their packaging. It is fair assumption that most people in the UK consume more food from supermarkets than they do from eating out, so why is it so “dumb” to extend calorie counting to restaurants?

    Furthermore, calorie counting is so prevalent that if I go on the NHS website to measure my BMI and I am overweight, the website will give me a rough recommendation of daily calorie intake. Should we not also be slamming the NHS for promoting unscientific nonsense and putting people with eating disorders at risk? Is there not some basis for the value of concern around calories? Is it at least possible that adding calorie counts to food before we buy it works? And either way, would it not have been more helpful to refer to existing (admittedly mixed) research on whether or not the EU’s schemes have worked (

    It is not as if the government is not at fault with this new campaign; the opening suggestion that this move is a form of “performative bureaucracy” does seem to carry some weight. But it seems clear that the government is following quite standard procedure and hardly pushing the envelope.

    Whilst I am no fan of Mr Boris and his cabinet, the guiding narrative seems to lean a little too far into ad hominem: “Well if Boris said it, it must be wrong.”


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