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For those of us recovering from eating disorders, calorie-labelled menus will be devastating

As an anorexic teenager, I could tell you the calories in a Communion wafer. Plans for calorie counts on menus are a danger to anyone with experience of disordered eating.

By Amelia Tait

How many calories are in the Body and Blood of Christ? Fourteen years ago, when I was an anorexic teen letting a Communion wafer slowly dissolve on my tongue during Catholic mass, this was a pressing question. By then, I’d figured out the calories in a single clementine segment; in a quarter of a cereal bar; in a piece of gum chewed for an hour; in a splash of squash poured over ice.

Throughout my teen years, numbers haunted my head. I used to write the calories I’d consumed in a day on my palm in thick black biro and stare at it in class. Hours on Google meant I could tell you the calories in practically everything, from a single chip-shop chip to a handful of lettuce leaves.

Things couldn’t be more different today. Put me on Mastermind! Offer me £100,000! I couldn’t tell you the calories in an egg; in a chicken burger; in the two pastries and quarter bottle of prosecco I had for brunch last Saturday. After years spent recovering from my disorder, I am ignorant and it is bliss.

This is why I am deeply troubled by new government measures forcing hospitality businesses to display calorie counts on their menus. The proposed legislation, announced on 11 May as part of the Queen’s Speech, affects businesses with more than 250 employees and will soon force me to confront numbers I have successfully ignored for years. While I think this information should be available (either online, or on separate menus) for those who want and need it, I don’t want these numbers to frighten those teetering on the edge of an eating disorder; I don’t want them to undo the hard work of those who have recovered.

These measures are ostensibly designed to tackle obesity, but evidence has shown that labelling calories on menus has little to no effect on the average person’s ordering habits. One 2014 meta-analysis from academics at the New York University School of Medicine found that “calorie labels do not have the desired effect in reducing total calories ordered at the population level”. A more recent 2020 working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that calorie-posting laws are linked with small reductions in average BMI, but that these reductions are “unlikely to impact health conditions related to BMI and obesity”. On top of this, scientists are still debating whether calorie counting as a whole is an effective way to tackle obesity.

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There is very little evidence that calorie counts on menus will improve public health, and experts believe that these counts are dangerous for people with eating disorders. One 2017 paper published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders asked 716 adult women to order from menus with and without calorie counts. Participants with anorexia and bulimia ordered “significantly fewer” calories when the menu was labelled, while participants with binge-eating disorder ordered “significantly more”. The paper’s authors concluded that there is “a critical need to evaluate the impact of obesity prevention policies on individuals with eating disorders”.

And then there’s the anecdotal evidence. My social media timelines are flooded with upset comments from people with experience of eating disorders, and a number of petitions have sprung up asking the government to reconsider the legislation (some of these were created in 2020, when measures were first proposed).

“We know that including calories on menus causes great distress to those affected by eating disorders and could exacerbate eating disorder thoughts and behaviours, which have the potential to be devastating,” says Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at the eating disorder charity Beat. He adds that the charity is “urging” the government to “listen to those with lived experience of eating disorders and scrap this dangerous and ineffective policy”.

I understand that this is a complicated issue, that – as with many health initiatives – what helps some can hurt others. But to me, this is (another) example of our government’s wilful ignorance. There is no reason calories need to be printed on menus instead of published online; there’s no reason calories should be the measure of health over fat, salt and sugar content. Why should the onus be on the individual to reduce their calories – why not prevent restaurants from serving a single chicken wrap with three times your recommended daily sodium?

When visiting fast food restaurants in the States, I’ve already had a taste of how it feels to be confronted by calorie counts: the way it immediately robs me of choice, gives me heart-pounding guilt, and strips the enjoyment from eating out. For the briefest of moments, it can take me back to being that teen girl contemplating spitting out God. Thankfully, I’m now recovered enough that these sensations last just a moment – I have no qualms ordering the most calorific item on the menu out of some strange kind of spite.

For those who aren’t as lucky as me, calorie-labelled menus can and will be devastating. Those numbers on a page will plunge many back into the darkest times of their life and rob sufferers of calories they desperately need.

If you are affected by the issues in this article please visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk or call its adult helpline at 0808 801 0677