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95% of people affected by eating disorders in Scotland feel calories on menus will negatively impact them, new survey finds

95% of people affected by eating disorders feel that introducing calorie labelling on menus in Scotland would have a negative or very negative impact, according to a new survey by Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity.

The Scottish Government is asking for the public’s view on proposed plans to make calorie labelling on menus mandatory in food outlets such as takeaways, restaurants and hospitals as part of Scotland’s obesity strategy. Beat is calling for the Scottish Government to avoid introducing calorie labelling on menus, to protect people in Scotland who are living with an eating disorder.

Beat surveyed people across Scotland to find out how they feel this legislation would impact people with eating disorders. 95% of survey respondents do not support introducing calorie labelling on menus in cafes, restaurants and takeaways.

Many expressed concerns that calorie labelling on menus would increase feelings of ‘fear’ and ‘guilt’ for those currently unwell, encourage eating disorder behaviours such as restrictive eating, and make recovery more difficult. Elsie* said: ‘It took me years to un-learn calorie counting and to find joy in food again. To have it displayed so openly, to potentially hear friends discuss it right in front of me, would be very triggering and harmful.’

Over half of survey respondents felt that if legislation was introduced in Scotland, they would go out to eat less frequently. Ewan* said: ‘Many chain restaurants have already added calories to their menus. I have had to stop going to these places as I’m concerned that I will relapse.’

Several people mentioned that eating meals out is an important stage of eating disorder recovery. An occupational therapist who responded to Beat’s survey said: ‘An important part of my role in supporting people's recovery is reintroducing and normalising eating out. The introduction of calorie labelling would make this incredibly important work even more challenging at such a crucial stage of recovery.’

Many also voiced frustrations that they feel adding calories to menus would be ineffective for the general population. Malcolm* said that the legislation would ‘negatively impact those with eating disorders and completely miss the impact on those it is intended for.’ Others said that calorie labelling would ‘reinforce unhealthy perceptions around nutrition and eating,’ and that calories are only one of many factors that determine the nutritional value of food.

When asked for alternatives to calories on menus, some survey respondents suggested that the Government could introduce optional menus or QR codes with calories included, but that menus without calories should be the default.

Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs said:

‘Including calories on menus can be extremely harmful for those with eating disorders. We know that it can increase feelings of anxiety and distress and worsen existing eating disorder behaviours, which can make people more unwell and recovery more difficult. We are also hearing from people who have been in recovery for a long period of time who are distressed about the change proposed legislation would bring, and who are beginning to avoid eating out.

‘Demand for eating disorder support has skyrocketed during the pandemic, with many people experiencing heightened distress, anxiety and isolation over the past two years. Between April 2021 and March 2022, Beat provided over 300% more support sessions to people in Scotland in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.

‘We are already seeing the damage caused to people affected by eating disorders in England, where calorie labelling legislation became law in April. The Scottish Government must protect people affected by eating disorders by avoiding making calorie labelling on menus mandatory across the nation. This should include taking an evidence-based, inclusive approach with health policies and involving eating disorder clinicians and experts by experience at every stage of the process.’

Dr Stephen Anderson, Consultant Psychiatrist in eating disorders said:

‘There is no good evidence that this kind of calorie labelling is effective in reducing obesity. We also hear from people with eating disorders that this would have a detrimental effect on their eating disorder. Calories are one aspect of nutritional information but on its own this figure is not particularly helpful.

‘Suggesting that people need a specific number of calories does not take into account the individual’s physiology, gender, race and activity. This could be particularly harmful for children and young people where limiting calorie and nutritional intake can have significant impacts on development. A wider public health initiative looking at social and economic determinants of obesity and improving the population’s nutrition is likely to be more beneficial than listing calorie content on menus.’

*Names have been changed

How can I help?

Your voice matters, and together we can make a difference. We're asking you to sign our open letter to Maree Todd (Scotland's Minister for Public Health) asking her to reconsider adding calories on menus.

You can also share your views on calories on menus by completing the Scottish Government's consultation by 1st July 2022. You can read our guide on this here.