Calorie counts on menus fill me with fear and shame for all the wrong reasons


“Please tell me you’ve eaten properly today.”

For most people this is a light-hearted comment, a way of finding out if you’ve actually taken the time to stop what you were doing and eat, but for some this simple request brings out fear. It’s a split-second choice between lying or admitting you’ve been skipping meals, between a smiling nod and sharing that you’ve been stashing snacks to binge on in private, away from watching eyes.

Food, along with the fears, situations, and worries it brings, is one of the biggest things people struggling with eating disorders dread – and that feeling is about to get so much worse in restaurants. As of Wednesday, April 6, large businesses are required to display the calorie counts of all items on menus alongside the daily recommended calorie intakes.

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For most people, this change is relatively minor, doing little to change dining habits other than offer diners “more informed, healthier choices”, but for people like me these tiny little numbers are damaging reminders of a very serious mental health condition. There are thousands of people in the UK who let calories rule their lives, with countless more displaying dangerous tendencies of eating disorders who could easily fall into the same horrifying habits if they’re pushed towards the obsession.

You might think you don’t know anyone with an eating disorder but the NHS estimates that one in every six adults is at risk of developing an eating disorder, so statistically one person at your table will look at those calorie counts and see something much more terrifying than a number. Beat, a national charity supporting people with eating disorders, estimates at least 1.25m people in the UK struggle with food, although that complicated relationship shows itself in a number of different ways.



New legislation means it will be a legal requirement for big restaurants to show calorie information

According to Beat, the NHS guidelines also dispute the accuracy of the legal requirement to include “adults need around 2000 kcal a day” on each menu, as the health service states your daily intake depends on age, metabolism, and levels of activity among other aspects. Although establishments are allowed to offer a menu without calories upon request, there is no legal requirement for any businesses to provide this, despite campaigning from Beat.

When the government first passed this legislation in July 2021, Andrew Radford, CEO of the charity, stated how devastating this change would be for people battling eating disorders. He said: “We are deeply disappointed that Parliament has chosen to overlook the research showing the risks that calorie labelling poses to those with eating disorders.

“Nevertheless, we are immensely proud of the Beat supporters who have campaigned together in their thousands to stop this legislation, and we are grateful for their work in helping mitigate some of the harms this new law will pose. Notably, customers will have the option to request a menu without calorie information and we urge restaurants, cafes and takeaways to ensure this is available.

“We also welcome the decision not to apply this legislation to education settings. It is highly unlikely that either of these steps would have been agreed had it not been for the efforts of our campaigners. Beat will continue to call on the Government to take a more integrated public health approach to its work to address obesity, ensuring that any future campaign is developed in consultation with eating disorder experts, including people with lived experience.”

I don’t need to ask charities for case studies to highlight how all-consuming eating disorders can become and how damaging this change will be because I’ve lived it myself and know the fear these calorie counts spark. The first time I remember feeling anxious about my appearance was around age 15, worrying about how my hair, skin, and weight would affect my social standing at school.

Surrounded by other girls going through the same worries compounded my fear of not being enough, and worries snuck into my mind late at night, making it impossible to sleep whilst I poked and prodded at my reflection in the mirror, finding fault with the way my hips and stomach looked, and feeling repulsed by my muscular thighs because they didn’t have a gap between them. Within a year, I was monitoring my calorie intake obsessively, downloading a calorie counting app and religiously inputting every aspect of my meals into it – sometimes rifling through my home recycling bin to find the packaging from dinner to make sure I’d inputted it correctly.



Charity Beat has pushed back against plans for calorie counts on menus

It wasn’t enough, and soon I started skipping snacks or replacing meals with lower-calorie options instead, taking pride in being able to find a reason to miss lunch without raising suspicion and spending days in bed with crippling migraines, likely exacerbated by my lack of food. I was obsessed with weighing myself, proud every time the number grew smaller and my collarbones became more pronounced in a sadistic sign of victory in my battle against myself.

I tore myself out of the obsession one night when I nearly faceplanted the ground whilst practicing for a hockey tournament after pushing my body to the limit, eating the lowest number of calories my stomach allowed whilst hitting the gym for up to two hours at a time to punish myself for eating. I deleted the calorie counter and focused on training to be fitter and faster, exhausting myself from various hobbies I picked up to make it easier to stop thinking about food.

It worked for a while, but not taking any real action to get help for my condition meant the underlying fears never went away, and shortly after I moved to university I became wrapped up in another delusion that I was too fat. This time, alongside restricting the food I allowed myself to eat, I also started to make myself sick after meals, crying and retching my way through the evenings before getting ready to go out and meet some of the new friends I feared were laughing at me behind my back for how I looked (they weren’t).

I told some of my closest friends about my struggles, and was met with the same pity and denial I’d seen my school friends encounter, feeling even more isolated when they couldn’t understand why it felt so necessary to carry on. I hate eating in front of people I don’t know particularly well, but then the thought of being seen whilst eating terrified me to the point where I would try to only eat alone, hiding away as I stuffed much-needed sustenance into my body to get rid of the headaches and shakiness which was my body crying out in hunger.

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Eventually I settled into university, found a group of good friends who loved me and moved in with my now-fiancé, which over time allowed me to stop making myself sick, instead leaving behind a binge eating disorder that fills me with shame and fear when I really think about food – which is exactly what calorie counts are supposed to do.

The idea that calorie counts being plastered everywhere is supposed to be helpful shows the preconceptions people have about eating disorders and obesity that mean people who aren’t overweight decide I have to know the calorie count of every meal I’m putting in my body because they don’t understand that there could be other harmful habits causing me to put on weight than the calorie content of a meal. Experts have long debated about the leading causes of obesity, with high-calorie snacking, the massive marketing campaigns and deals encouraging us to eat less healthy options such as takeaways and junk food, and a lack of exercise all discussed here – but rarely the calorie content of restaurant meals.

Those following diets can already access information about the calorie content of meals in these large chains, and making that information more easily accessible would be much more helpful than forcing the numbers down people’s throats in some bizarre attempt to encourage healthiness that completely misses the point that the healthiest options for a balanced diet aren’t always those lowest in calories.

Most horrifying is the thought of how many other people will struggle with these changes too. Although anorexia is the most commonly-known disorder it’s actually the least common in the UK, with just six per cent of people suffering from it. Bulimia affects almost one in five people struggling with food, whilst 22 per cent of people with eating disorders struggling with binge eating.

Nearly half of those affected have an other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED), meaning their symptoms don’t neatly fit into one of the other categories. For all of those people, it can be a massive mental battle to just sit down and eat and adding calorie counts to menus does nothing to alleviate that battle, especially when most menus already use problematic wording asking consumers things like “why not try our lower calorie options”: a phrase that can have a snowball effect on the mindset of someone struggling with a mental health condition.

When I was at my worst, those counts would have sent my head spinning, anxiously comparing the smallest number next to a meal to the number next to the meal I wanted to figure out how much I had to leave behind to make sure the calories fit into my counter. Even now those tiny numbers fill me with fear and shame for all the wrong reasons. I want to eat healthily and I try to make good choices, filling my diet with healthier alternatives and fruit and vegetables, but attaching calorie counts to even those nutritious choices makes my heart pound with anxiety, and I’m one of the lucky people that no longer obsesses over that tiny little number.

Most people who struggle with eating disorders will go on to make full or massive recoveries, but that recovery can still be a battle that takes a lot of mental effort. Every small hindrance standing in the way of that could be the one spot that sees them trip and fall back into old habits. Yes, knowing the calorie content of your favourite comfort food might put you off ordering it quite so often, but as most of these figures can already be found on calorie counting apps and websites, is there really any need to add them to menus rather than just making it easier to find that information? Will seeing the calorie count on a menu put you off ordering a dish you’d been craving when you sit down at your favourite restaurant?

There is a small chance this change will help the health of the nation, by either shaming restaurants into reducing the calorie content of their meals or pushing people to realise their meal choice is far more calorific than they thought and switching to a slightly lower calorie option. But as healthiness can’t be defined by calorie content that chance is far smaller than the risk of these counters causing harm to people struggling with eating disorders – especially as there’s very limited evidence to show the new legislation will actually help as intended.





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