In accordance with new rules passed by the government, large restaurants and chains with more than 250 employees must now list the calorie content of all dishes on their menus. The thinking behind this is that it will help to combat obesity levels in the UK by making people more aware of the calories they’re consuming when they eat out. However, there are concerns that this could have a negative impact on people who already have or are at risk of developing eating disorders, with one charity, Beat voicing strong opposition to the new measures.
But where do these concerns come from? And will the new rules really make a difference to public health?
Understanding eating disorders
To answer these questions, it is first necessary to understand what eating disorders are and how they affect people. There are three main types of eating disorders and compulsive eating that can emerge in anyone at any time:
- Anorexia nervosa – Characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight and a severe restriction of calorie intake. This can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems and eventually even death.
- Bulimia nervosa – Often involves episodes of binge-eating followed by purging. This can be done through self-induced vomiting, the overuse of laxatives or excessive exercise.
- Binge-eating disorder – Characterised by episodes of binge-eating followed by feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment.
Eating disorders can be both an extreme attempt at self-improvement and an example of very serious self-harm. They can be a way of trying to achieve what is perceived as a “perfect” body image that’s often presented in the media and also a way of punishing yourself for not being able to achieve it. They can also be a way of coping with anxiety, low self-esteem or trauma or a way of exerting control over your life when other areas seem out of your control.
Why could calories on menus pose an issue?
For people with eating disorders, calories can become an obsession. They can become fixated on the numbers and start to see food as nothing more than a collection of numbers that need to be controlled.
As the charity Beat explained in a Tweet:
“We’re extremely disappointed that the government is making calories on menus mandatory in England from 6 April. We know it causes anxiety for people affected by eating disorders, (…) can increase fixations on restricting calories (and) can increase feelings of guilt for anyone with binge eating disorder.”
One thing that needs to be remembered, however, is that many people with eating disorders will attempt to count calories whether the number is written on the menu or not. While it seems likely that having the calories in black and white could add to a person’s food anxiety or result in relapse, are there other potential consequences that aren’t being considered?
One area of concern is that it could result in younger people becoming aware of calories and perceiving them in a negative way. With the NHS now treating a record number of young people for eating disorders (a two-thirds increase since before the pandemic), the worry is that the new rules may exacerbate the already serious situation.
We have a cultural obsession with calories but calorie content alone is a poor way of measuring food’s nutritional value. It only provides a snapshot of what’s in the food and doesn’t take into account important factors like fat, sugar and fibre content. Calories are literally the energy in food but different people require different amounts of calories depending on their age, sex, lifestyle and metabolism.
What are the proposed benefits of the new rules?
The reality is that two in three UK adults are overweight or obese with NHS costs for obesity-related diseases predicted to reach nearly £10 billion a year by 2050. Clearly, this is unsustainable and so effective measures are definitely needed.
As a society, we are beginning to understand that prevention is always better than a cure, particularly when the problem is so widespread and is costing the country so much money. With this in mind, the Department for Health and Social Care say that food labelling can play a crucial role in helping people to make healthier food choices and point out that people are already used to seeing calories on food packaging.
It is important to take a balanced look and acknowledge that the new rules could help people become more aware of what they are eating. Many of us have a good idea of whether we are eating healthily or not when we cook at home but this is not always the case in a restaurant. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by Public Health England, 79% of respondents agreed with the new rules.
What are the concerns of the new rules?
While we support anything that can improve public health and increase education around food, we also understand the concerns that have been raised by Beat and other opponents to the new rules. Dimitra Theodora, our Eating Disorders Specialist, advices that the law can cause unnecessary stress and worry to eating disorders sufferers, especially for anorexics which is the mental disorder with the highest death rate among all mental disorders. People may develop obsessions with calories instead of choosing a meal for its nutritional value or the taste. This move can also trigger people to develop eating disorders for first time, competing and getting obsessed about losing weight fast by consuming less calories, and this can put lives at risk.
Our main worry is that the new measures could lead to people becoming more secretive about their disorder as they feel like they have to hide it from others. This secrecy can make it harder for friends and family to spot the signs that someone is struggling and get them the help they need.
We know how important it is to identify eating disorders in loved ones as early as possible. Eating disorders are similar to addiction in that they thrive when they are able to isolate a person and convince them to hide their disorder. If calories on menus really do lead to more secrecy and isolation, it could make it harder for people with eating disorders to get the help they need.
Eating disorders and food addiction are multi-faceted conditions that are often both the result and cause of other mental health disorders. People suffering from food addiction suffer from a compulsive need to eat and most people with these conditions are already well aware of the calorie content of food. The major concern is that having it confirmed will not change their eating behaviour but will only result in low self-esteem, anxiety and guilt.
How to make the best of the new law
The important thing for everyone is to be aware of the potential issues that could arise from the new legislation and to take steps to protect themselves and their loved ones. Here are three tips for making the most out of the new rules:
Check the menu in advance
The vast majority of restaurants have websites these days and checking the menu in advance will help to remove the shock factor of seeing the calories printed. You can choose what you want to eat before you arrive at the restaurant so you don’t feel under pressure to make a choice.
Discuss your feelings with loved ones
If you have a particular reaction to seeing the calories on the menu, talk these feelings through with your friends or family. Communication can be vital in managing anxiety or difficult emotions and will help you to feel more in control. The same applies if you see that someone you are with is struggling. A quiet, reassuring word could be all they need so always be aware of how other people at your table are feeling.
Use the calorie readings as a guide, not a rule
If you’re trying to be healthy, use the calorie information as a general guide rather than a hard and fast rule. For example, if you’re looking at two similar meals and one has slightly fewer calories, don’t automatically assume that it’s the healthier option. Balance is key and over-thinking things can lead to unhealthy habits.
For further advice, you can also click here for Beat’s guide to eating out with calories on the menu.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether putting calories on menus will have a positive or negative impact on public health. At UKAT, we are open to both sides of the argument but our focus is always on the health and wellbeing of those with eating disorders and food addiction. There is no easy answer, especially when obesity is such a major issue in the UK. The important thing is that those with eating disorders are not forgotten and that a plan that could well turn out to do great good, doesn’t end up hurting people in the process.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or food addiction, get in touch with us today.