‘Calories on Menus’ Reflection: the fight for eating disorder awareness remains
For many of us, dining out at restaurants represents a social occasion, to celebrate milestones, spend time catching up with our friends, share a date night with someone or spend time with ourselves. It’s an opportunity to try some place new and tap out from life’s stresses, demands and routines. For the last three years, this has become a returning norm of mine. To enjoy the spontaneity in catch ups with friends at local cafes, trying new dishes with my partner and taking myself to brunch. With exposure, commitment and great discomfort, I have found recovery from my eating disorder.
According to BEAT, 1.5 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder, with around 25% of those affected identifying as male. Numbers of eating-disorder-related hospital admissions have spiked since the pandemic, alongside increased demands on mental health services and charities. So, when the government announced plans to introduce mandatory calorie labelling, I couldn’t help but wonder, is this scheme really a ‘simple solution’ to tackle obesity or are we continuing to promote a society which rewards us for restriction?
Whilst maths was my least favoured class in secondary school, I had quite ironically mastered the art of recalling the calorie contents of many foods and drinks. This dance with fad diets, numbers and restriction would go on to dictate much of my love-hate relationship with food in my late teens and early-twenties. Eating out during these times were often met with preoccupation of calories rather than enjoying company and occasions. Finding enjoyment in dining out, in its simplicity, when recovering from an eating disorder feels somewhat of a refuge from what was once a cause of great anxiety, stress and overwhelm. The introduction of calorie-labelling will, in some cases, take this refuge away. Whilst navigating recovery, there is an underlying fear of regression, especially when our culture promotes dieting and anti-fat attitudes. With thanks to charities such as BEAT and Mind, those finding this transition difficult can find guidance and support.
Despite both criticism and campaigns by mental health charities and concerns raised for those affected by eating disorders, mandatory calorie-labelling was introduced on Wednesday 6th April 2022. The policy requires restaurants of 250+ employees to list calories on their menus by law. The policy is part of a wider strategy by the government in hope of managing cases of obesity in the UK. However, it’s important to consider that there are many contributing factors that extend further than calorie-labelling, and this implementation may cause much more harm than good. As we approach two months since the policy came into effect, I think of those actively struggling and those vulnerable to developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Following the implementation, many restaurants have been accommodating to guests who take a stand against the policy. Staff at Dishoom’s Manchester branch were praised by guest, Sophie Bartlett, when they went ahead and scribbled out the calorie contents when she requested a menu which was calorie-labelling free. The restaurant disclosed that they would ensure calorie-labelling free options would soon be made available upon request across all their locations.
Massive kudos to @Dishoom Manchester - I asked for a menu without calories but they didn’t have one so one of the staff (Georgia) took a menu and scribbled out all the calories for me 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 pic.twitter.com/hUybGg8JtA— Sophie Bartlett (@_MissieBee) April 16, 2022
Although it’s a positive notion that restaurants will offer calorie-free menu options, it feels problematic that these are only available upon request. Should it be expected of those who are already navigating their recovery to ask, in some cases in front of their friends and family? Such expectations may make it more difficult for some people to eat out in public and choose the meals that they would like to. It’s important that public spaces are accommodating to those in recovery from mental health problems, to promote inclusivity and prevent isolation.
This policy may have been introduced with the best intentions, it reads that the government has chosen to ignore and overlook research and growing concerns for the UKs mental health and impact on future generations. This highlights that the fight for eating disorder awareness in the UK remains, and it’s more important than ever that those with eating disorders are advocated for and reminded that they do not have to take on this fight alone. Although it can feel as if our society is taking a step backwards with policies such as these, it opens space for important conversations and debates to break stigma and create a future which is full of hope.
Would you like to access support for yourself or someone you know affected by an eating disorder?