An anorexia survivor has slammed new government legislation which make it mandatory for restaurants, takeaways and cafes to display calorie information on their menus in a bid to promote ‘healthy eating’. Victoria Spence, 27, from Worsley, was diagnosed with two different eating disorders in her adolescent years and has warned that the new rules will cause eating disorders in the UK to spiral.
.She also fears those who already have an unhealthy relationship with food will be put off going out for dinner altogether. The changes, which were brought in from April 6 with the aim to tackle the issue of obesity in the UK, now make it a legal requirement for large businesses with more than 250 employees to display calorie figures on menus, online menus and third party takeaway apps.
Public Health Minister Maggie Throup said the new rules were ‘crucial’ to help provide people with the information to “maintain a healthier weight,” as it is estimated that almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity. But campaigners and survivors fear the legislation could have a ‘heartbreaking’ impact and cause more people to ‘fixate’ on food.
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Around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – a number which charity BEAT say has been exacerbated by lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic. They fear the new rules will lead to a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia and bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge eating disorder.
Victoria has been free from her eating disorders for seven years, but says she would have found the new legislation extremely triggering when she was unwell. speaking to the MEN she said: “I know if I had my eating disorder now and I saw that something was 500 calories but I could get something for 300 calories I definitely would.
“With an eating disorder you are constantly looking at how to eat the lowest amount of calories possible,” she said. “I think the new calorie label rules are absolutely ridiculous. Usually when someone goes out for food it’s special and not your every day thing.
“Even for people who don’t have an eating disorder this going to cause so many people to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. For someone with an eating disorder, going out for food is already a challenge so to go out and then be in a position where all these numbers are there, it will be so overwhelming. I imagine it will stop a lot of people from going out. It will make eating disorders absolutely rife.”
Victoria says she is also concerned with the messaging the new rules send to the people it’s supposed to be targeting. “It’s basically shaming them,” she said. “Shaming someone is never going to make them make positive lifestyle changes. Money could be so much better spent on developing mental health treatments to help people overcome the thought processes behind these disorders.
“I also don’t understand the system because the calorie count of something does not indicate how healthy something is. A bowl of chips might have less calories than a Poke bowl but that doesn’t mean they are better for you.”
Adam Fare, 25, has struggled with an eating disorder for 14 years and says the new policy is “disproportionately harmful” to those with conditions such as bulimia and binge-eating disorder. Adam, from Cumbria, said the new legislation will stop him from going out to eat and ordering takeaways.
“It is creating a culture of restrictive eating,” he said. “We are living in a time where eating disorders are rising exponentially and this will cause people to compensate for what they eat more often by restricting food later on. It will also allow people to set up unhealthy habits that they did not have before, even people without an eating disorder. It will impact their lives too.”
Rachel Egan, who is recovering from an eating disorder said she had visited a restaurant which had adopted the new calorie labels on their menu, and faced a battle between choosing what she wanted to eat and what had the least calories. She wrote on Twitter: “Had to eat out a restaurant with a calorie labeled menu last night. Based my two options on lower calorie options. Chose something I didn’t really fancy and only ate half to save on calories. I’m underweight and have ED. Hope this is what they wanted.”
Lucy Mae, who is recovering from an eating disorder, said she is now “terrified” to eat out again after the new legislation was announced. “I believe that this legislation is utterly ridiculous and irresponsible. As someone who has suffered with an eating disorder, and continues to fight for full recovery, I am so disappointed in our government for making this decision,” she said.
“We are going to see a huge rise in eating disorders, not a decrease in obesity. What about providing calorie information on request, not the other way around? I was getting comfortable with eating out and it’s something I enjoy doing. Now I’ I am terrified to eat out again because I know the choice I will make will be based on the calorie content, not what I want to eat.”
Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs, said: “We are extremely disappointed that the Government is making calories on menus mandatory in England from 6th April, despite evidence that it causes anxiety and distress for people affected by eating disorders.
“We know from the people we support that including calories on menus can contribute to harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviors worsening, for instance it can increase a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge There is also very limited evidence that the legislation will lead to changed eating habits among the general population.
“1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and sadly we know that the pandemic has contributed to more people than ever before needing support for these serious mental illnesses. Beat has continually asked the Government to consider the impact on people affected by eating disorders and to take an evidence-based approach when creating health policies.This should involve consulting eating disorder clinicians and experts by experience at every stage of the process.”
The legislation will be enforced by local authorities with the Department of Health and Social Care supporting them with the additional costs of enforcing the policy. Local Authorities are encouraged first to have conversations with those businesses who are not complying with the law. Local authorities can issue improvement notices. Any person who fails to comply with a notice could be guilty of an offense and could be fined £2,500.
The types of businesses covered by the requirement include: restaurants, fast food outlets, cafes, pubs and supermarkets, home delivery services and third-party apps selling food that is in scope of the legislation, cafes and takeaways within larger shops and venues, such as supermarkets, department stores, and entertainment venues such as cinemas.
Specialist food stores, delicatessens, sweet shops and bakeries, contract catering – for example, for events and canteens, and domestic transport businesses including plans, trains, ferries and other forms of water transport within the UK.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Clear food labeling plays an important role in helping people make healthier choices for themselves and their family. We have carefully considered the views of a wide range of experts in response to our public consultations on calorie labelling.
“The regulations allow businesses to provide menus without calorie information at the request of the customer. This means people who find viewing calorie information more difficult may be able to avoid this information when dining with businesses who can provide a menu without calorie labelling.
“We will continue to evaluate the impact of out of home calorie labeling across the population, including on people with an eating disorder.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.