CW: This article discusses topics of eating disorders and mental illness which could be distressing to some readers.
For anyone diagnosed with or experiencing even minor symptoms of an eating disorder, the recently introduced law around Calorie Labelling has caused a lot of distress. This work will unpick what the intentions were, the harm that it has potentially caused and my suggestions for ways you can help yourself or someone else who may find eating out challenging.
What is the new law?
From April 2022, a law came into force that obligates businesses with over 250 employees to display calorie information on menus and food labels, in response to obesity cases. This means that when visiting most cafés and restaurants, or even when safely in your own home ordering a takeaway, your mind is about to be invaded with calorific information. To some these are just numbers that can be glossed over, but for a large demographic these are numbers that can easily trigger self-critique and unhealthy restriction.
A blanket approach of pushing numbers in people’s faces doesn’t seem to be helping anyone.
Whilst Jo Churchill (Public Health Minister 2019-2021) stated that the intentions of this law are “to support and encourage people in achieving and maintaining a healthier weight”, the truth is that most will not become healthier. Obesity is not simply cured by looking at calories; for the audience this law was intended to cure, it is unlikely to suddenly change their habits and mindset.
In contrast, for someone recovering from an eating disorder, it could make them very ill. Imagine being on a recovery program for disordered eating and the next step is to go for a treat meal, trying to manage even a few bites of a meal you really like but have restricted for so long. You mentally prepare for this challenge and make your way to the restaurant. When you arrive you are handed the menu and open it to the page containing your dish, but instantly your eyes are drawn to the number that wasn’t there before, the calorie content. Before you’ve even ordered the meal you feel put off it, you calculate how many minutes of exercise you would need to do to burn it off and how many meals you would need to skip to balance out the extra calories you ate. Just like an eating disorder, people with obesity deserve access to support services where they can make individual meal plans and discuss their feelings as well as the food they are/aren’t consuming.
Jo Churchill used the words ‘achieving’ and ‘maintaining’ which feel deeply inconsiderate: a desired weight is not a positive target, everyone’s bodies are unique and it’s the wellbeing of their mind and body functions that keeps them safe and healthy.
The idea of ‘maintaining a healthier weight’ is also a kick in the teeth to anyone with an eating disorder. These people battle against their minds every day, trying to eventually recover, but in the initial stages just managing to be safe and stable is a huge achievement. To maintain a healthier weight, the last thing someone with an eating disorder needs is calorific information displayed everywhere.
"It will simply prevent anyone who may develop or have an eating disorder to seek help because counting calories will have become normalised and encouraged by the government."
Whilst I am in no position to change the law and erase calories from menus, I certainly can offer ideas of ways that you can support yourself or someone else.
My Supportive Suggestions:
Ring ahead and ask for calorie free menus (not everywhere will have them but most places will provide them upon request).
Choose to eat at smaller independent venues, as with under 250 employees they are not required to show the calorific information.
Ask someone to read out the menu for you, missing out the calorie information.
To avoid been overwhelmed with too many options, let the waiter know what type of dish you fancy, and they will be able to describe any similar dishes they offer, allowing you to select a meal without even opening the menu.
Consider if you prefer to pre-book somewhere or choose in the moment. For some, being spontaneous around meal times can be anxiety inducing, as they feel most comfortable using techniques they have learnt to prepare mentally for a meal. Others prefer to choose a restaurant on the day, based on what food they fancy in the moment, so they don’t have time to look up menus online before they go and already be exposed to the calorie content.
Make it clear when inviting people to a meal that they are welcome to join even if they would just like a drink rather than food, or if it is someone who is not yet ready to be in a food environment, make sure you create plans for the rest of the day that the person enjoys/can be a part of.
Select a venue where you feel safe in the seating arrangements: you may prefer to sit outside for more fresh air to reduce any physical symptoms such as increased temperature and nausea, but equally a cosy corner inside can feel safer/more secluded so that the eating experience feels less public.
The final request I'd like to close with is that you please never push yourself or someone else to do something you/they are not ready for, and that you will always reach out for support when you need it.