Compulsory calories on menus would’ve made my eating disorder worse

In my early 20s, I spent most of my time consumed by thoughts of food, exercise and my weight. But amongst my foggy memories of skipping meals and spending hours in the gym, one night in particular stands out. I was meeting my university friend at a new pizza restaurant in south London. The evening had been playing on my mind for three days because at the time, I was terrified of restaurants, takeaways and any meal I couldn’t control.

When the waiter placed the menu in front of me, my hands were shaking and my brain was working overtime as I scanned for anything that felt “safe”. When it came to my turn to order, I took a deep breath and decided to pick the same option as my friend. While I only managed to struggle through half of my plate, when I got home that night, I was filled with pride that I had managed to somewhat enjoy pizza for the first time in years.

If this situation had arisen now, not only would I have had to battle my own disordered thoughts around food, but I would have also been forced to look at the calories of my choices staring back at me.

As of 6 April, all restaurants, cafes, and takeaways in England employing more than 250 people must include calorie counts on their menus. The move, the government says, is a “building block” in the strategy to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and tackle the obesity crisis.

But for the estimated 1.25 million people who are currently suffering from an eating disorder in the UK, this will make dining out even more unbearable. The eating disorders charity Beat has expressed disappointment and concern about the government’s decision to make calories on menus mandatory, as it will increase feelings of distress, guilt and anxiety, and encourage “fixations” on counting calories.

Would seeing these numbers have made my own experience in that pizza restaurant harder? I had been suffering from anorexia for years at that time, and numbers had taken over my entire life. This legislation would have been evidence that my eating disorder was telling me the truth – that calories should be feared and I should avoid the pizza at all costs.

But only providing calories as the sole, fixed measure of health isn’t true or accurate. A calorie is just a unit of energy. We need calories to keep us alive. As weight-neutral doctor Joshua Wolrich says: “The calorie content of food has no automatic bearing on its ability to be healthy, nutritious, morally superior or more satisfying. It’s not a good way to guide your food choices.”

The amount of energy someone needs is dependent on many things. Our bodies are all completely different and there should never be a “one size fits all” approach to food consumption. Reducing health down to “calories in and calories out” is damaging and misleading. Even if we all followed exactly the same eating and exercise routine, there are key differences in our biology, genetics and social environments that will play a part in our weight and health outcomes.

The government’s anti-obesity strategy, which includes calorie counting, is supposed to make the country “healthier”. But instead of trying to heal the nation’s relationship with food, it continues to normalize disordered eating and unrealistic body ideals. When did it become considered “healthy” to track everything you eat, fear certain food groups and obsessively study the nutrition of every single thing we put in our mouths?

While I am now slowly healing from my eating disorder, calories still trigger me and I sometimes find myself panicking when I look at a menu. All this legislation has achieved is to create another hurdle for people like me who are trying to repair their relationship with food.

Recovery is by far the toughest thing I have ever done, and it takes a huge amount of strength to continue ignoring the external pressures of diet culture every single day. Everyone deserves to be able to make food choices based on intuition and what feels right for them, rather than being led by a sense of shame and fear, tied to menu calorie counts.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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