Rachel Egan, 30, from south London, has been in recovery from anorexia since first suffering with an eating disorder since the age of 15. Now, she’s slammed government policy to put calories on menus in chain restaurants
Image: Rachel Egan)
A woman in recovery from anorexia has slammed “harmful” government policy forcing chain restaurants to put calories on menus.
Rachel Egan, from south London, said the policy will prolong the recovery of people living with eating disorders and could make people feel “guilt and shame” when they go out to eat.
The 30-year-old, who works in communications and is a mental health campaigner, said the policy left her feeling “fraught with anxiety” when she went out for dinner with her boyfriend a few nights ago.
She told The Mirror: “I already had an idea of what I wanted to eat because I’ve been [to that restaurant] before. The last time was about three months ago, but they didn’t have the calories on the menu then.”
Rachel, who says she’s trying to eat new things when she visits restaurants as part of her ongoing recovery, said she and her sister opted for something she wouldn’t normally order.
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But when she returned to the restaurant with her boyfriend and saw the calories on the menu, she says she immediately began evaluating them.
“That’s what jumps out to an eating disorder brain,” Rachel explained. “You start looking for the ‘safest’ option.”
In the end, Rachel picked out a meal she liked the sound of – but she only ate half of it, conscious about the calorie content with every bite.
“I skipped having a juice because the soft drinks had calories on them too. A juice has more calories than a Diet Coke,” she said.
Rachel’s battle with an eating disorder dates back to when she was 15 and began extreme calorie counting.
“I first kind of noticed there was an issue shortly after the mandatory calorie labeling and traffic light system came into effect in supermarkets,” she said.
Rachel added she doesn’t think the system was the sole reason for the manifestation of her eating disorder.
She explained: “I’d also recently been through a bereavement and I have a family history of eating disorders.”
As time went on, Rachel became more and more obsessed with calorie counting, which developed into anorexia.
Just a young teenager at the time, her body quickly became malnourished.
“I did become very unwell and I ended up in A&E. There were concerns about the blood flow to my heart and brain.
“I had low blood pressure which can have an affect on the brain, as not enough blood is getting to it.”
As Rachel’s body grew weaker she also suffered from problems with her joints.
“It made walking painful. When I was at school and we would write everything by hand, that was difficult.
“I was very unwell and very malnourished.”
On top of the physical effects of anorexia, Rachel’s mental health was at an all-time low.
“I always say an eating disorder sucks the life out of you. It’s like the color had drained out of my life,” she recalled.
“I was super anxious all the time, thinking about what to eat and when to eat. Those thoughts just circulate around your head.”
Rachel added she was depressed and felt isolated from her friends because so much of a teenager’s social life revolves around food – for example, going to the cinema and ordering a bucket of popcorn.
“Lots of teens do that kind of thing but I struggled to take part in it,” she said.
After her trip to A&E, Rachel says she realized she didn’t want to die from this illness and started on a long journey to recovery.
She was put in touch with mental health services and began psychotherapy, and was also given a dietician to help her with things like meal planning.
“It’s been 15 years and I’m still working on it,” she explained. “I’ve definitely had some ups and there have been times when physically and mentally I’ve been really well.
“But anorexia is an illness that can come back unfortunately, and it did for me.”
She added waiting lists for people who need support with eating disorder recovery are sky-high, and demand has also gone up since the beginning of the pandemic.
In December 2020, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health warned there had been a huge rise in cases of anorexia nervosa in children over the previous year.
Some pediatricians claimed they had seen quadruple cases as they issued a stark warning to parents to look out for the signs of eating disorders in their children.
Against this backdrop, Rachel decided to pay for private treatment to help her in recovery – which she says is going well.
But for others who need support, she argued the government’s initiative to force restaurants to put calories on their menu will stunt their recovery.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who stands to benefit from this policy,” she said.
“It should be withdrawn immediately. The government has already been warned about this. It’s going to be super damaging.”
She added: “Part of eating disorder treatment is going out to eat and not knowing exactly what’s in your meal.
“It’s about getting used to the idea that it’s ok not to know everything.
“It’s going to be even harder to eat out than it is already. It’s going to make those challenges in treatment even worse and it can lead to anxiety.”
Rachel also pointed out that if calories are on the menu in a restaurant, this will no doubt prompt conversation around the table about calorie counts, which can be incredibly triggering to people suffering from an eating disorder.
“We try to minimize exposure to those conversations, but if you’re in a large group and you’re the only person with an eating disorder, it’s not easy to ask everyone to stop talking about it,” she explained.
“We’ve just come out of the pandemic and there’s a huge rise in the number of people with eating disorders, combined with chronic underfunding.
“Now the government has slapped this on top of it.”
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and need support, you can contact the Beat helpline which is open 365 days a year