Calories on menus are misleading at best... and psychologically damaging at worst.
We know that, as Beat shared stories from the recovery community over the summer. This summer the UK government mandated that companies with more than 250 employees must list calorie count on menus or risk a £2,500 fine. It’s interesting to see that £2,500 is the price the government will charge noncompliant restaurants, when eating disorders cost the UK government £9.4B in 2019 alone; £4.8B on the economy, £1.7B healthcare, and £1.1B caretaker costs.
UNILAD reported an economic study which cited that demand for eating disorder treatment increased £3.4B (54%) at UK non-profits between 2019 and 2021. Meanwhile, those non-profit organizations faced a £10.1B funding deficit, and half of British children who sought eating disorder treatment had to wait over a month for care. That £2,500 will hardly make a dent in that treatment deficit. The calorie counts will do less money raising than they will cause weight stigma and fat shaming.
But I’m not a UK citizen and I don’t want to get political about a country where I can’t even vote. No, I want to focus my frustrations on home. The American government has just announced the SNAP Program to create equitable access to “nutritious” food for underprivileged families. The program debuted alongside the FDA’s new ‘healthy’ food guidelines. The government agency will allow corporations to brand food packages as “healthy.” This probably sounds familiar to the British readers. The FDA’s program villainizes fats and uplifts restricting caloric intake for the sake of confronting obesity. The concept that health and wellness are correlated with fewer calories isn’t new, in the UK or U.S. (U.S.’ Biggest Loser, My 600-lb Life, the UK’s Supersize vs Superskinny–I’m looking at you). Diets have been rebranded as wellness, a $1.5T industry globally covering sleep, mindfulness, nutrition, fitness, appearance and health businesses.
Branding clean, low calorie eats as good and high fat, junk as bad essentially assigns morals to food, and makes us naughty, fearing the garbage in our bodies. KFC’s 1991 rebrand dropped “fried” and in 2018 Dunkin’ lost “Donut” to stay “relevant” for “careful” consumers. The industry thrives on marketing, not science, and it appears both our governments are buying in.
This wouldn’t be the first time the FDA got “health” wrong. According to the UN, the average daily need for kcals (or capital C Calories for Americans) is 2,800 (1,600-2,200 for women, 2,000-3,200 for men). These ranges are wide by design, offering flexibility for the litany of various factors impacting daily intake, like genetics, age, activity level, and hormones. Biden and the FDA’s exclusionary celebration of so-called “health” leaves no room for health at every size. Weight stigma is real. 8 in 10 ten-year-olds fear becoming fat. 3 in 4 women display disordered eating behaviours. 1.25 million Brits have eating disorders, 25% of which are male. Before COVID, 30 million Americans, 1 in 10, were fighting eating disorders. At time of writing, weight loss and diet pills were trending on Google Search.
Both our cultures already fear fatness. The new government programs essentially validate those fears by proclaiming fatness and certain foods as bad. SNAP’s 44-page strategy plan mentions obesity 24 times, but not once does it mention binge eating disorder (BED), America’s most common eating disorder by more than three times the others according to the National Eating Disorders Asociation (NEDA). Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Eating disorders themselves have no look, and at their core, they aren’t at all about what we look like. A decades-long stereotype that only young white affluent girls can have–restrictive– eating disorders has suppressed those who don’t fit that mould but do need care. It is well documented by the CDC and NHS that eating disorder cases more than doubled during the pandemic, causing pediatric hospitals to become overrun. Mental health care resources are maxed out to the point of months-long waiting lists for those who can afford it. No nationwide nutritional program can be truly complete without also allocating substantial resources for the mental aspects of ‘health.’ Mental health was mentioned only twice in the 44-page SNAP strategy playbook.
By focusing only on the physical, and the food, we are missing the bigger point. There’s more to digest here.
Britain eating disorder warriors, do you have any tips for your not-so-star-spangled American friend?
-Contributed by Megan Bazzini. Megan is an aspiring YA novelist, self-titled 'cringe-worthy poet' and published mental health essayist. Her eating disorder recovery mantra is 'Keep Going. Recovery is worth it.'
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in Megan's story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.