New laws came into force in April this year requiring large restaurants to list the calorie content of foods on their menus.
But members of a local group have described how this new requirement is making things like eating out or getting a takeaway with friends much more difficult for people like them who are struggling with an eating disorder.
They are urging local restaurants to provide alternative menus without calorie information if people request one, and ensure staff are aware that these are available, to help people enjoy the experience of eating out again.
Tom described how the new law affected his daughter: “People sometimes don’t understand how numbers can become everything when you are struggling with an eating disorder. Seeing those calories displayed can really stop you in your tracks.”
People sometimes don’t understand how numbers can become everything when you are struggling with an eating disorder. Seeing those calories displayed can really stop you in your tracks.Tom
Tom is a member of a ‘lived experience advisory group’ for the region’s adult eating disorder services, which are run by a Provider Collaborative made up of Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust and Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust. The group brings together people who have experienced an eating disorder themselves, and people who care for loved ones who struggle with an eating disorder. They meet to share their input with the Trusts on various topics and proposals.
Another member of the group, Becky, described how the new requirements to display calories set back her own recovery.
“I had been very unwell, and I was receiving treatment on an inpatient unit. I was doing OK. I got to a place where I felt happy eating a good, nutritious meal of a jacket potato with cheese and beans each day.
“But then we went out to eat at a supermarket café. And I saw the calories of their jacket potato, cheese and beans on the board above the tills.
“When we went back to the ward that day, I couldn’t eat that meal again – even though I’d been eating it quite happily, rationally I knew it wouldn’t make me pile on weight – but just seeing the number quantified really affected me.”
Because of the way the new law works, diners will be given the menu containing calorie counts by default, and often sit with it while waiting to ask for an alternative. Restaurants are allowed to have versions of their menu that don’t include calorie content information, but the law doesn’t require them to. But the group is hoping that more restaurants will choose to have an alternative available, on premises and online.
It’s especially difficult if the staff aren’t sure what to do about your request, or there isn’t a menu available without calorie information.Kirsty
For people living with an eating disorder, having to ask for separate menu can make it even more challenging to eat out than it already is. “It highlights that you’re different and draws attention to you,” explains group member Kirsty, “especially if you are with people you don’t know very well. It’s especially difficult if the staff aren’t sure what to do about your request, or there isn’t a menu available without calorie information.”
If you’re nervous about asking for a calorie-free menu in front of people, members of the group suggest calling ahead to see if the restaurant can provide one, taking a look online, or seeing if a friend can read the menu out to you.
Only cafes, restaurants and takeaways with 250 or more employees in England are required by the law to display the calorie information, so smaller restaurants and cafes can be a ‘safer’ choice. Kirsty says, “I decide where I’m going out to eat based on where doesn’t have calories on the menu. Friends will message me when they visit a new place, saying, ‘add this one to your list!’”
Calories and nutrition
Calorie counts say nothing about how nutritious a meal actually is – something can be more calorific but better for your body.Becky
Alongside their menus, restaurants now have to display the message that “adults need around 2000 kcal a day.” But eating disorder charity Beat emphasises that this guidance is not in line with NHS guidelines, which state that “ideal daily intake of calories varies depending on age, metabolism and levels of physical activity, among other things”.
Becky says, “From everything I’ve learned in treatment and recovery, I know that calorie counts say nothing about how nutritious a meal actually is – something can be more calorific but better for your body.
“But having those numbers pushed in front of me just puts another barrier in the way. I lose focus on what food I actually want, because I’m focused on the ‘right’ or lowest-calorie thing. I don’t see any of the delicious food on display – I just see the numbers.
“This law doesn’t take into account why people usually go out to eat. Most of us don’t get the majority of our diet eating at restaurants or cafes. We go there for the experience, for a treat – and this ruins our ability to have that enjoyable experience.”
Becky adds, “Even my boyfriend, who’s tall and plays a lot of sport – so he needs a lot of calories – says seeing the numbers on everything makes him feel guilty about what he chooses when we’re out, even though he has no history of disordered eating.”
We’d just really like to remind places to please have menus available without calories on, and to make sure your staff are aware of this option and where those menus are kept, so people aren’t made to feel uncomfortable or awkward.Kirsty
“We’d just really like to remind places, of all sizes, to please have menus available without calories on, both in the restaurant/cafe and online,” says Kirsty. “And to make sure your staff are aware of this option and where those menus are kept, so people aren’t made to feel uncomfortable or awkward when making that request.
“Eating disorders are very serious illnesses; anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. If café and restaurant owners take this small action, it will make a big difference to a lot of people’s recovery.
“And we also want to remind people that it’s ok to be brave and ask if you need help. If you can, see if a friend can phone ahead to check what’s available, or can read the menu out to you. There’s no shame in doing that if you need to.”
Eating disorder charity Beat offers information and support for anyone who may be struggling.