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Calorie counts on menus: ‘triggering’ for those living with eating disorders - and flawed on nutrition

The calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks must now be displayed on some menus

Restaurants, cafes and takeaways in England with more than 250 staff are now required to display how many calories are in meals on their menus, websites and on delivery platforms.

The new rule was introduced as part of government plans to tackle obesity by helping people make healthier choices.

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But the decision has proved controversial, with charities warning the move could be triggering for those with eating disorders.

We spoke to those living with eating disorders, charities and nutritional experts to find the impact calories being shown on menus can have.

The new rule was introduced as part of government plans to tackle obesity by helping people make healthier choices

‘It’s triggering, very triggering’

Amelia Goldsmith, 24, is a mind, health and physical wellness influencer who grew an online community based on her recovery journey, after secretly battling an undiagnosed eating disorder that hit its peak during lockdown.

Amelia, who recognised her struggle shortly after graduating from university with a degree in psychology, now supports many peers and is an ambassador for eating disorder charity SEED.

Since the new requirement to display calories came into place, she has eaten out at two restaurants with calories shown on the menus and said she found it “difficult eating and choosing options that I genuinely wanted without looking at the calories” even though she was “trying my absolute hardest to not look at them”.

“It’s forced upon you so you’re going to look at it anyway – so, it was hard. It’s triggering, very triggering,” added Amelia.

Although she feels the display of calories on a menu should be removed, Amelia said that an alternative could have been to put QR codes on a normal menu, so that those who want to see the calories can scan that code and look at that menu instead.

‘All I can see are numbers’

The negative impact calories on menus may have is echoed by Sophie, 25, from Surrey, who has lived experience of anorexia.

“The display of calories on all menus has made going out for meals extremely difficult,” she said.

“Seeing the calories creates further restrictions, and deciding what to eat will not be based on taste or preference, but the least calories.

“This has made going out less enjoyable and something I am now even more prone to avoiding because all I can see are numbers rather than options.

“Comparing dishes based on the calorie content is not a way to spend time in a restaurant, which causes a lot of stress and additional anxiety."

Similarly, Joss, 29, from Surrey, who also has lived experience of anorexia and OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders), said the impact of calories on menus on recovery “will be devastating” as it will “inevitably perpetuate the distress and anxiety individuals with eating disorders feel around food, and reinforces the idea that food is just a numbers game”.

She added that learning to eat out in restaurants and socialise around food is an important part of recovery, but the addition of calories to menus will “hinder” this, and “the effects ripple further than the individual, influencing the families and friends of the sufferer”.

“I know from my own experience of recovery that breaking free from calorie counting took me years and thankfully calorie labelling on menus was not a thing, otherwise I really don’t think I would be as free from my eating disorder as I am today,” she said.

Joss, who is an assistant psychologist and is trained in behaviour change, said the research on calorie labelling is “actually very weak and largely does not have the desired effect in reducing calories consumed at a population level”.

She added: “This is a cheap way for the Government to look as if they care about reducing obesity rates whilst discounting behavioural sciences and the lived experiences of those suffering from serious psychiatric illnesses.”

Can calories on menus be helpful for some people?

The possible advantages of calories being displayed on menus is questioned by fitness expert Stef Williams.

“It is not possible to tell the nutritional value of a meal based simply on its calories, so only displaying the calorie content of each meal on a menu can be misleading for those trying to pick the healthier option,” she said.

She also added that the number of calories a person needs in a day depends on the individual’s activity level and resting metabolic rate, which “differs person to person”.

What do nutritionists think?

Wellbeing, fitness and nutrition expert Penny Weston said for some people, having calories declared up front can help them avoid choosing a meal they think is healthy, but actually contains a lot of hidden calories.

However, Penny added that the benefits of calories “are not clear cut” and instead suggests that those trying to make healthier food choices keep a check on portion sizes, cut down on high fat, high salt processed and high-sugar foods, and find snacks that they enjoy but also nourish their body.

Meanwhile, nutritional therapist Janice Tracey said she finds the Government’s policy “ill thought out”.

“Thinking one single number can act as an information tool to inform decision making about food choices for health and wellbeing is flawed and belies the complex nature of obesity in our society,” said Janice.

She pointed out that calorie counts alone don’t indicate how nutritious a meal is, with some nutrient-rich foods, like nuts and seeds, being high in calories but good for your health.

"The simple provision of calorie information will not turn the tide on the rising obesity numbers in the UK,” added Janice.

“At its best it’s a reductive approach to an emotional and physical complex obesity emergency in our society and at its worst is harmful to the growing number of people who are sensitive to such information.”

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk

You can also contact SEED on (01482) 718130 or visit the website for further help and support on eating disorders.