Calories on menus are becoming increasingly popular with some countries like the UK making it a legal requirement. The decision by the UK to make calories on menus mandatory was met by an outcry by people in the eating disorder community because of the harm and risks associated with this move. The very nature of the decision to make calories mandatory is aligned with diet culture principles of helping people make more “informed decisions” about what they eat. Concerningly, encouraging people to make more informed decisions about the food that they eat can be the first step in the development of eating disorders amongst vulnerable people. In addition to this, the presence of calories on a menu can illicit huge anxiety in those already suffering from eating disorders making it an alarming decision by the government.
A fear of calories is a known challenge for people with restrictive eating disorders and for those who struggle with disordered eating generally. In fact, anorexia (AN) is defined as a disorder in which individuals restrict their energy intake relative to what is required for daily functioning. Given the fact that at least 10% of the UK population struggles with anorexia and that between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders, it is worrying that the government has made this call and that it is being made in the interest of public health. One wonders how this can be in the interests of public health given the negative impact it will have on such a large number of people in the population! This is particularly worrying because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition with an estimated 1 in 5 anorexia sufferers dying from the disorder each year.
In one study conducted to explore the impact of having calories on the menu, it was discovered that people with AN and bulimia (BN) ordered significantly less when using a menu with calories than when using a menu without. This is not surprising given the fear that calories illicit. When calories are present it immediately causes the ED voice in one’s mind to go wild making it an almost impossible challenge to face. However, when calories are unknown people are able to see food as food and not numbers which not only helps sufferers rebuild their relationship with food but also relax a bit more.
Since for the moment, it seems that calories on menus are here to stay, here are a few helpful tips for eating out:
Try and eat out with trusted people who you can share your anxiety with. This ensures that you are not alone when the menus come round
Ask for a menu without calories
If there is no menu without calories, then ask a friend or loved one to read out the options and help you order
Talk to your care team about different strategies you can use including relaxation techniques and mindfulness mantras
Beyond all of this remember that calories are units of energy used to sustain life. They are the building blocks of our survival and nothing to fear. When your ED voice tries to tell you otherwise speak back. Start to see consuming calories as a wonderous act of care and nurture towards yourself. Tell yourself that the energy you get from food is the energy that is going to enable you to live a whole and exciting life. You can’t live a full life without calories so start seeing them as the superhero of life instead of the villain. It’s okay if you can’t see calories in a positive light just yet but don’t give up hope that one day you will. The eating disorder community is with you in strength. This is not an easy obstacle to face and you are doing so well.
American Psychiatry Association. (2013). Feeding and eating disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi-org.ezproxy.frederick.edu/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Haynos, A. F., & Roberto, C. A. (2017). The effects of restaurant menu calorie labelling on hypothetical meal choices of females with disordered eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 50(3), 275-283.
Priority group, (N.d). Eating Disorder Statistics. Retrieved fromhttps://www.priorygroup.com/eating-disorders/eating-disorder-statistics