OPINION: Stop trying to shame those who enjoy eating out

Young woman at a restaurant deciding what to order

If people want to spend £100 on a good meal out as opposed to going to a Premier League match, people shouldn't grumble, says Andy Newman - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As regular readers of this column will know, I am someone for whom the pleasures of the table are something I live for, a man who very definitely ‘lives to eat’ rather than ‘eating to live’.

Forget dancing, or wild parties, or Netflix binges: easily my favourite way of spending an evening is in a restaurant, surrounded by friends, enjoying good food and wine.

There are some people, mainly those who inhabit the bottom half of the internet, who regularly have a go at me for this.

In Britain, it seems, it’s fine to spend your money on designer trainers, or Premier League football tickets, or expensive handbags (all of which are indeed fine – people should be able to choose what they spend their hard-earnt cash on); but somehow it’s ‘obscene’ to splash out on food, and in particular eating out.

I get that you can eat at home for a fraction of what it costs to consume a similar meal in a restaurant (although I would contest that the two are not comparable); in exactly the same way, a pair of £10 Lidl trainers will do the same job, more or less, as a pair of £200 Axel Arigato sneakers.

It’s your money, and I for one won’t judge you on how you spend it. And if I choose to take the £100 it would cost me and a friend to see the latest Norwich City defeat at Carrow Road, and instead blow it on an evening out enjoying good food, you shouldn’t judge me either.

From this month, those who eat out will find yet another judgement being made about them, as restaurants are forced to put the calorie count of every dish on their menus.

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On the face of it, given the obesity crisis that Britain is facing, this seems like a good idea. But like many well-intentioned but poorly-planned initiatives, this one is doomed to failure.

For a start, it only applies to restaurants (and cafes and takeaways) which employ more than 250 people. That means it will only affect big chains, because obviously, calories served up by small restaurants don’t count.

These are the corporate giants who are most adept at circumventing regulations. Who can forget the introduction of the ‘Leggera’ pizza at Pizza Express? Supposedly a dish aimed at helping you to consumer fewer calories, it was – and is – in fact simply a pizza with a hole cut in the middle, which is then filled with rocket.

Because you are getting a third less pizza, the dish unsurprisingly has a third fewer calories. Equally unsurprising is that the Leggera costs just 8% less than the full-sized equivalent. This anti-obesity obsession seems to be as much about the restaurant’s bottom line as the customer’s waistline.

The second problem with calorie labelling is that it is too simplistic. Whilst counting calories does have a role in weight loss, it is not a reliable indicator of the healthiness or otherwise of any given foodstuff. Eating 500 calories of chocolate cake and 500 calories of fruit or nuts is not the same thing – your body will process one very differently to the other.

Putting the calorie count on a menu will likely have the effect of removing the responsibility for eating healthily from the consumer – they will believe that choosing dishes with fewer calories is all that matters.

And anyway, study after study has shown that it simply doesn’t work – calorie labelling doesn’t appear to lead to a reduction in calories consumed.

If we really want to transform the diet of the UK, virtue-signalling initiatives like this are not the answer. The vast majority of the food we consume is in the home, and until we start teaching people about nutrition and cooking (not to mention ensuring that everybody has enough money to feed themselves properly), our obesity epidemic will continue.

The restaurant should be a place of joy, somewhere to meet friends, de-stress, not worry about having to do the washing-up, trying new as well as familiar food. It shouldn’t be a place to be ashamed, nor indeed shamed.