When Sophie Bartlett went to Dishoom for her friend’s birthday, she asked for a menu without calories. When the Indian-inspired restaurant didn’t have one, her server – Georgia – took a menu and scribbled over all the calorie information for her.
“I’ve never had an eating disorder but I easily got sucked into calorie counting before,” says Bartlett. “It was miserable and really affected my mental health. I have multiple friends and family members who do suffer from eating disorders who have been greatly affected by this new legislation.”
As of 6 April, under new Government rules, restaurants with more than 250 staff must display calories counts on their menus and websites. The move is aimed at curbing obesity by helping diners make informed choices. But Barlett’s story highlights the demand for menus without calories. She retold her story on Twitter, praising Georgia’s response, and received more than 16,000 likes and 658 retweets.
Her tweet caught the attention of Dishoom, which has since revealed that while it plans on sticking to the legal requirements, “we totally understand that this might not be a welcome measure for some of our guests. We’re making sure that calorie-free menus will be available, at all of our branches, for all guests who would prefer them.”
Dishoom is not the only restaurant to do this. Many other restaurants have confirmed they will still have menus without calorie information for customers who request them, as well as the government-mandated calorie-labelled menus. This is in line with a provision in the Government’s guidelines for “people who may find viewing calorie information more difficult”.
Bartlett believes all restaurants should offer a choice of menus, with and without calorie counts. “I just keep coming back to the lack of inclusivity. It’s such an easy change – with or without. And with that option, everyone can eat out guilt-free as they wish.”
“People shouldn’t have to ask,” says Bartlett. “It can be embarrassing. In fact, it was embarrassing – it was only thanks to the lovely reaction of my waitress that I didn’t feel embarrassed.”
Beat, the eating disorder charity, has released advice on eating out with calorie labelling for those who might find the new regulations difficult.
“Learning how to dine out again is an important part of the recovery process,” it says. “However, it can cause feelings of anxiety and a flurry of difficult thoughts, and the readiness to do so will depend on the individual and it is important to ensure you feel in a place to safely challenge this aspect of your recovery.”
In response to the government guidelines, some chains are pushing the vital message that there is more to healthy eating than calorie counting.
Wagamama has not only stated it will offer non-calorie menus alongside calorie-informed ones, but it has partnered with anti-diet entrepreneur Lucy Mountain. Mountain aims to raise awareness of its non-calorie menu, explaining “the role of education on how nourishment goes beyond simply calorie-counting”.
The Japanese-inspired chain’s CEO released a statement explaining their decision: “After two years of working with our charity partners Young Minds, disordered eating for young people is something we’re acutely aware of. As calories become a legal necessity for all restaurants, we’ve decided to offer a non-calorie menu for guests suffering with a challenging relationship with food.”
Similarly, Vietnamese-style food chain Pho has partnered with registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert to “remove anxieties and fears that published calories on a menu can generate”. While adhering to the guidelines, it also agreed to print menus without calories for those who ask for them, as well as having QRs codes leading customers to a calorie-free menu online.
The partnerships with registered nutritionists and anti-diet organisations show a greater awareness for wider education on nutrition outside the idea of calories.
Meanwhile, Pizza Express has been offering printed no-calorie menus since 22 March. A spokesperson from the chain says: “For years we’ve offered calorie and nutritional information on our menus via a QR code, and as we have recently launched our Spring Menu, we now include the calorie details on all our menus in line with new Government requirements. For our customers who want a menu without this information, we are able to provide this to them.”
Upmarket restaurant chain The Ivy Collection has also revealed that while it will follow the Government’s legislation, “we are also able to provide menus without calorie information if any of our guests request it”.
TGIF has said that while its printed menus will contain calorie information, a no-calorie option is available for customers online. “Guests can visit our website via the following link whilst in-store and toggle the calorie button on/off as they please.”
Restaurants under the Mitchells and Butlers company – such as Browns, Toby Carvery, Stonehouse Pizza & Carvery, Harvester, Miller & Carter, Vintage Inns, and Ember Inns – will all provide no-calorie menu options.
The Government insists that giving people calorie information on their meals out will help them make a more informed decision on what they eat. But the decision of chain restaurants to provide calorie-free menus shows there is more to a meal than its calorie content.