How to Cope with Calorie Labelling in Restaurants

This week we have seen the introduction of new legislation here in the UK, whereby calories are now to be mandatory on menus in all restaurant chains employing more than 250 people.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that this is going to feel like an absolute nightmare for people who struggle with eating disorders across the spectrum. When this was announced a few months back I wrote a post with the help of people with various eating disorders and it really highlighted that this policy is not only going to affect people with anorexia, as the media might have us believe. Eating disorders are incredibly personal and complex, and we are all going to have our own anxieties and worries. I personally feel incredibly anxious about this, and although I have been in recovery for over two years now, eating out is still a huge source of anxiety for me. It might seem counter productive to say that not being able to know calories is easier than knowing them, because calorie counting was and is a huge part of my anorexia. However, it is my eating disorder that wants to know the calorie content of things, not me, and I want to be moving away from that as much as possible. So, I thought it might be helpful to collate some tips to navigate this new law.

Ask for calorie free menus
These do exist, and they should be available. This is easier said than done and I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for this myself because I feel like I would be drawing attention to myself. I’d also find it incredibly difficult not to look if that information was presented to me. If you feel the same way as me, try to come up with an agreement that whoever you are eating out with can ask when you arrive. That way it takes the pressure off you.

Have somebody read the menu to you
If there is no option for a menu without the calories listed, ask if somebody you are with can read you the options. That way you can still make a choice without needing to see that information yourself.

Set some ground rules
This one may be challenging, but is likely to make things easier in the long run. Try to make a plan with people you are going out with that no conversations about calorie content take place. This also includes people talking about whether this is influencing their decision, any compensation they might be doing to allow for it, or how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ their choices are.

Try to visit smaller, independent restaurants
As this change is only legislated for places with 250 or more employees, smaller and non-chain restaurants and cafes are not obliged to do this. Of course some may choose to, but it’s less likely to be something that you will come across. Plus it’s always a good excuse to support a small business!

Remember that calories are necessary
If you cannot avoid seeing this information, it’s about reframing it. As my therapist used to say: “you can’t gain weight from eating one thing on one day”. A calorie is a unit of energy, nothing more, and there is no moral value ascribed to eating more or less of them. Everybody needs calories to live, and you are not a bad person for whatever choices you make.

Don’t focus on the food
Try not to spend time analysing and focusing on the food itself, but on the company, environment and conversation. Try to distract yourself and get immersed in enjoying spending time with people you care about, and building nice memories with them.

Remember why you are doing this
Eating out is a really important part of recovery for most people. It helps us to relearn how to be ‘normal’ around food, and how to do things like eat in front of people and choose things that are out of our comfort zone. You are challenging yourself because you want to recover, because life without an eating disorder is so much better than life with one.

Be prepared
Think about how you are going to manage if you are unable to avoid seeing calorie information. What skills and coping strategies could you use? Who do you need to help you with these? The chances are that as much as you try to avoid it, it will happen eventually, so it’s important to have a plan of action to cope when it does.

Don’t compare yourself to others
Everybody has different preferences and requirements. I know how hard it is not to compare yourself to others, especially when it comes to food. But somebody picking something that is lower calorie than what you chose or wanted to choose says nothing about who either of you are as a person, or what your bodies need. Nobodies nutritional needs are the same, and it’s important to remind yourself of that when you start falling into the comparison trap.

Talk to people
If you’re finding things difficult, be open about it. Eating disorders are so secretive by nature and sharing some of the burden of what you are thinking and feeling helps others know how to support you better. Lots of difficult emotions and thoughts can arise in situations like this, but you don’t have to deal with them alone.

I know how challenging this is going to be for so many of us. I know how frustrated and angry and vulnerable a lot of you will be feeling right now, because I am feeling that way too. But there are ways to manage this difficult situation, and I truly don’t believe that this has to derail the recovery process, as challenging as it may be.

If you have any other suggestions, I would love to hear them too.

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