In my early 20s, I spent most of my time consumed by thoughts about food, exercise, and my weight. But among my hazy memories of skipping meals and spending hours in the gym, one night in particular stands out. I was meeting my college friend at a new pizza restaurant in South London. The evening had been on my mind for three days because at the time I was terrified of restaurants, takeaways and any meals I couldn’t control.
When the waiter put the menu in front of me, my hands were shaking and my brain was working overtime as I scanned everything that looked “safe”. When it came my turn to order, I took a deep breath and decided to go for the same option as my friend. Even though I only managed to fight for half of my plate, when I got home that night, I was filled with pride that I was able to enjoy some pizza for the first time in years.
If this situation had occurred now, not only would I have had to fight my disordered thoughts about food, but I would also have been forced to watch the calories of my choices staring at me.
As of April 6, all restaurants, cafes and takeaways in England employing more than 250 people must include calorie counts on their menus. The move, the government says, is a “brick” in the strategy to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and tackle the obesity crisis.
But for the roughly 1.25 million people currently suffering from an eating disorder in the UK, this will make dining out even more unbearable. The charity Beat has eating disorders expressed disappointment and concern on the government’s decision to make calories mandatory on menus, as it will increase feelings of distress, guilt and anxiety and encourage “fixations” on calorie counting.
Would seeing these numbers make my experience in that pizzeria more difficult? I had been suffering from anorexia for years at the time and the numbers had taken over my entire life. This legislation would have been proof that my eating disorder was telling me the truth: that calories should be feared and that I should avoid pizza at all costs.
But providing only calories as the only fixed measure of health is not true or accurate. A calorie is just a unit of energy. We need calories to keep us alive. As neutral-weight physician Joshua Wolrich puts it: “The calorie content of food has no automatic effect on its ability to be healthy, nutritious, morally superior or more satisfying. Not a good way to guide your food choices ”.
The amount of energy a person needs depends on many things. Our bodies are all completely different and there should never be a “one size fits all” approach to eating food. Reducing health to “calories in and out” is harmful and misleading. Even if we all followed exactly the same diet and exercise routine, there are key differences in our biology, genetics, and social environment that will play a role in our weight and health outcomes.
The government’s anti-obesity strategy, which includes calorie counts, should make the country “healthier”. But instead of trying to heal the nation’s relationship with food, it continues to normalize disordered eating and unrealistic bodily ideals. When did it become considered “healthy” to keep track of everything we eat, fear certain food groups and obsessively study the nutrition of every single thing we put in our mouth?
Even though I am now slowly recovering from my eating disorder, the calories still trigger me and I sometimes find myself panicking when looking at a menu. All this legislation has achieved has been to create another obstacle for people like me who are trying to mend their relationship with food.
Recovery is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it takes a tremendous amount of strength to keep ignoring the external pressures of diet culture every single day. Everyone deserves to be able to make food choices based on intuition and what feels right for them, rather than being driven by a sense of shame and fear, tied to the calorie counts on the menu.