Our community member has launched a petition against calorie labelling on restaurant menus and bravely shares what has driven her to speak out about her cause.
I was 12 years old when I first downloaded a calorie counting app. My mental health was already suffering, my self-esteem was low, and I was enticed by the promise of a healthier and happier lifestyle, that I could look and feel better by controlling what I ate. What I didn’t know then was that my health-seeking mission was a precursor to my 10-year battle with anorexia, to my current day disposition of a life ruled by numbers. Even though I deleted that app after my first hospital admission 8 years ago, I can’t so easily remove the inbuilt calorie calculator that resides within my brain.
Checking calories has become as habitual to me as checking the time, providing me with a sense of safety and control, albeit a false one, in an otherwise chaotic world. The irony is that not being able to eat food unless I know its exact nutritional value is not me being in control; it is a symptom of my eating disorder. I am in the process of unlearning a decade of beliefs, rules, and rituals around food – something hard enough in itself without the added complication that the society in which I live is obsessed with losing weight and attaching moral value to food.
In April 2022, the government plans to introduce calorie labelling to all menus at eating establishments with more than 250 employees, with the aim of alleviating the obesity crisis. Whilst I do agree that improving the physical wellbeing of the nation is incredibly important, I am alarmed by the misleading and simplistic focus placed on numbers, both Body Mass Index (BMI) and the caloric content of food, as a direct indication of healthiness.
I do not expect to recover in the perfect environment. There are people for whom losing weight may be the healthy choice. There may be people who can take heed of calorie information and still have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Frankly, that is none of my business.
However, what is my business is the effect this legislation will have on those who suffer from eating disorders, such as myself. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that develop as a coping mechanism for underlying issues such as anxiety, depression, and trauma, and whilst dietary restriction is by no means the sole cause, it is a known precursor to developing an eating disorder in those who are vulnerable or genetically predisposed.
Obesity is itself a multifaceted health issue and according to the UK Government’s report published in 2007, there are over 100 different factors that can contribute, many of which are outside the individual’s control. Placing full responsibility on the individual negates the impact of poverty and deprivation, mental health issues such as binge-eating disorder (often triggered by restriction itself), genetics, medical conditions, unequal access to nutritious food and appropriate healthcare, inadequate nutritional education, among many other factors.
There is a wealth of evidence that suggests calorie labelling on menus has no impact on the overall food purchases and consumption of the general population but what is certain is that for those who are suffering from, recovering from or are at risk of developing eating disorders, this legislation can and will have a devastating and damaging effect.
I believe that accessing calorie information should be a choice, not an obligation. That is why I am calling on the government to ask restaurants to make this information available only at the specific request of the customer so that those who find seeing the nutritional content helpful can do so, but those who find it distressing, or simply irrelevant when enjoying a meal out, do not have to be subjected to it.
One day, I hope to get to the point where being exposed to calorie information has no impact on my food choices, but I am not there yet. Putting this information on a separate menu or the restaurant’s website would introduce a natural pause, a moment to reflect on whether following through with my compulsive urge to check the calories is the right choice for my recovery.