Restaurants and Calorie Labelling – Helpful or Harmful?

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Yesterday it was announced that previously discussed plans of adding calorie content to restaurant menus is going to come into force.

The supposed rationale for this is that obesity rates are continuing to rise in the UK and that this may help people to make ‘healthier’ choices. There are several problems with this. Firstly, calorie labelling has been in place on most packaged/shop bought food for over 10 years and appears to have had little to no impact on the weight of the population – there is no evidence that it works as an intervention. Additionally, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, and we know how pervasive calorie counting is in people who struggle with their relationship with food and their bodies.

The government pay lip service to Mental Health Awareness Week every year. Most of us know that this is nothing more than performative, but to drop something like this in the middle of it, knowing the impact it is likely to have on people’s mental wellbeing, just highlights how we are nothing more than collateral damage.

I asked on social media why some of you felt like the introduction of this measure would be harmful and pulled some common themes together. They entirely echo my own feelings about it.

It will make it more difficult for people in recovery to enjoy eating out
“It makes you feel guilty for eating to stay alive”
“If calories are on menus I choose based on that, not on what I want”
“My anxiety will sky rocket knowing what I am eating”

So many of you responded with concerns about how this would either make eating out a panic fuelled chore, or stop you from going altogether. There were a lot of common words coming up: guilt, anxiety, fear. Eating out should be an enjoyable experience and one that can be shared with people you love, not something that is going to cause emotional pain.

It will increase talk of calories around meal times
“My main concern is what conversations will happen around the dinner table”
“It was conversations around calories that contributed to my eating disorder”
“I don’t want to listen to diet talk at the dinner table”

A number of you brought up the likelihood of this increasing conversations about food choices round the table, including how this reinforces diet culture. There is also an element of competitiveness that eating disorders can breed, which can result in choosing the lowest calorie option to feel like the ‘best’.

It could increase other eating disordered behaviours
“I have a fear that I will slip back into bad habits”
“It will make me feel like I have to earn my food”
“As someone who has struggled with purging, the notion of keeping a certain amount of calories in my body is really hard”

The feeling of needing to earn food or get rid of food are frequently experienced by people with eating disorders. Exercise, purging, restricting – all of these behaviours are dangerous and engaging in them is an incredibly slippery slope.

It could increase the risk of developing an eating disorder
“Calorie counting first triggered my eating disorder and I worry it will do the same to others’
“It could potentially trigger others into engaging in harmful behaviours”
“Focusing on calories was the start of my eating disorder”

For lots of us, calorie counting can be pinpointed as the start of our struggles with food. Not everyone who calorie counts will go on to develop and eating disorder but up to 25% of those people will, which is a staggering number.

It could cause people to relapse
“I’m scared it will draw me back into eating disordered behaviours”
“It will limit my safe meal choices when I’ve worked so hard to expand them”
“My huge fear is that it will cause a relapse”

An overwhelming number of you spoke about fears of relapse. Recovery is a huge challenge and one that has to be maintained every day. There is a saying: you don’t just choose recovery, you have to choose it over and over again. Staying in recovery is very difficult, and measures like this make it just that bit harder.

It’s also really important to note that it isn’t just people with restrictive eating disorders who are likely to find this challenging. Some of you made some really interesting points about the impact it could have in other ways.

“It can trigger my binge eating – once I perceive that I have eaten over a certain amount of calories it can trigger a binge later on because I feel like I’ve already ‘ruined’ the day”
“It gives people around me more reason to judge my food choices because I’m fat”
“Knowing the calorie content makes me want to binge because I’ve already eaten over a certain amount so why not”

We know, based on evidence we have accumulated over the years, that this is likely to cause far more harm than good. Obesity rates have increased since calorie labelling was introduced many years ago, but so has the rate of eating disorders. Over lockdown the rate of this increase has been further accelerated. More and more people are becoming more acutely unwell. Beds are scarce and services are already drowning in the demand for treatment.

The world feels a hostile place when you are trying to recover from an eating disorder. Diet culture is toxic and it’s everywhere.

It already feels like the odds are stacked against us – measures like this are only going to exacerbate this.

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