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Calorie counts on menus won’t prevent obesity, but they will harm people with eating disorders

In 2020, the government announced plans to introduce calorie counts on menus of restaurants and cafes with over 250 employees. Initially forcing larger restaurants and cafes to put calorie counts on their menus, they did not rule out extending the policy to independent restaurants in the future. The government has emphasised that putting calories on menus is designed to promote an “informed decision” to “fight obesity”.

Less than a year later, the government has announced plans for pub chains to display the number of calories in all beers, wines and spirits served. These figures could be displayed on not just menus, but possibly on pump labels too. The push means that all alcohol sold in shops would be legally obligated to publish calorie information and health warnings.

The government’s plans have understandably horrified people living with eating disorders. Calorie counts on menus in pubs and restaurants would make it almost impossible for me to enjoy visiting them ever again. Living with an eating disorder feels more brutal than ever because there are endless boulders being thrown at our community. It is one thing to battle your own illness day in, day out, but to throw the carelessness of authorities and their blatant disregard for people with EDs and their needs on top of that makes recovery feel like even more of a hard slog. 

When the government announced their plans to “tackle obesity” following the pandemic, I felt so much, not just frustration, but sheer rage at the routes they were taking. From the Prime Minister encouraging people to start riding bikes to lose weight, to suggesting junk food ads be banned online, it seemed their entire campaign was based on misinformation from the start. Every person in the UK riding a bike won’t decrease obesity levels in the same way that every person on Earth using paper straws instead of plastic ones won’t put an end to climate change. The matter is far deeper and more complex than that, yet those in power remain fixated on a “one size fits all” approach to health, which is reckless as well as misguided. 

The plan for calorie counts on alcohol were announced a matter of days after Nikki Grahame’s death from anorexia made national news, which happened just 24 hours after she was discharged from hospital and deemed “okay.” These plans were also announced  after a Parliamentary report concluded calorie counting and the focus on BMI has done more harm than good and has contributed to a rise in eating disorders. This is more evidence to suggest the government have not thought about the feelings or safety of people with eating disorders. With eating disorder services continuing to be underfunded and overwhelmed, the last thing they need is a cabinet trying to actively harm eating disorder sufferers by implementing legislation that will trigger them or lead to relapse. 

Millions of pounds have been put into this initiative from the government, yet there is evidence to prove that calorie information on food packaging has made no difference since 2006. All it does is harm people who already possess urges to track every morsel of food they consume and encourage body insecurities.

Every time I visit a restaurant and I see numbers of calories on the menu, I want to run. I want to leave my seat, bolt towards the door and run as fast as I can, for as long as I can, until I am the furthest possible distance away from that menu. Seeing calorie counts on menus makes my stomach do somersaults. Now that I am pursuing recovery the very last thing I need is to be analysing the contents of what I eat – what’s important is that I am even eating at all.

There was a time in my life when the sight of those numbers would’ve decided what I ate, or rather what I didn’t eat, for the rest of the week. It dictated how much exercise I did, any methods of compensating for what I’d eaten, and how I felt about my body. Just hearing the word “calories” sends a shiver down my spine; it instantly transports me back to being a 14-year-old so wrapped up in a life of anorexia that she didn’t know who she was without it.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that way after reading stories from fellow eating disorder survivors, and their reactions to calorie counts on menus.

If an individual wishes to know the number of calories in a meal or an alcoholic drink, that personal choice can be made and they can simply look it up online in a matter of seconds. Forcing that data upon millions of people against their will, and particularly upon those whose brains have distorted attitudes towards calories is so cruel and insensitive. But most of all, it’s demoralising for those of us fighting against eating disorder urges on a daily basis and its exhausting to wake up each day knowing your government is not showing they care whether you live or die, whether that’s by ignoring services’ urgent need for funding, or actively trying to implement not just ideas, but laws, that make even the simplest of things like visiting a restaurant, feel like the most hellish task.

Are calorie counts on alcohol going to have the desired effect on the intended demographic? Of course, they won’t – they won’t deter people from enjoying a pint after work, or cocktails on a Saturday night. All it will do is ensure that people feel unable to visit a pub or restaurant like their friends can. It will simply prevent anyone who may develop or have an eating disorder seek help because counting calories will have become normalised and encouraged by the government. This initiative will lead to people becoming obsessed with their weight and what they eat, as it encourages us to track what we’re consuming and pushes the message of certain things being “bad” for us.

Health is relative and never determined by body size. I know that there are people living in larger bodies than my own who are far healthier than I am. The government’s thoughtless approach towards creating a “healthier” nation is doing more harm than good, by perpetuating diet culture myths and encouraging fatphobia.

If the government truly wants to tackle obesity levels, the government should look at the reasons why people may be a certain weight. Pushing anyone to lose weight without taking into consideration that health is complicated and different for every individual could literally kill people. Becoming thin won’t unlock a door to eternal health and happiness, this is something I found out the hard way after years of battling an eating disorder. Health and thinness are not connected, just like being overweight and being unhealthy aren’t the same thing.

Calorie counts don’t work, telling people to just stop eating greasy foods doesn’t work, and telling people to just start jogging doesn’t work either. Not every person who is classed as “obese” can just hop on a bike or go for a run as they may have an illness or disability. Obesity is complex and it is often demonised despite the frequent links it has with mental illness (which eating disorders are too).

Ultimately, poverty and austerity are at the core of this so-called “obesity crisis.” Poverty is arguably the biggest health challenge we face as a country, not people being overweight, and there is so much to unpack as to why that is. Prices of “junk” foods versus prices of fruit and veg, people’s wages and long working hours where there is no time to just “go for a run,” the funding of mental health services and research into eating disorders… the issue is massive and calorie counts on menus as a solution is a small-minded way to look at it. What the government truly needs to invest in is well-being, and that includes investing in both the care of eating disorder survivors in medical institutions and their safety in general society.

So many people with eating disorders are already being ostracized from treatment as numbers, weight and BMI are used as measurements of sickness. What we don’t need is for them to be used as measurements of health beyond eating disorder services as well. Basing a person’s health off their weight is not only outdated but also really harmful, and the sooner the government take that on board and starts listening to the cries of eating disorder survivors and their loved ones, the sooner we can actually create a healthier society, full of people who have healthy relationships with food, healthy attitudes towards their bodies, and appropriate resources on hand when they are struggling.

Contributed by Emily