The Concern with counting

Meg Taylor

As of April 2022 the government opted to pass a new law requiring chain restaurants to print the calorie content of every meal on their menu. Naturally, this decision has been met with mixed opinions; with some backing the initiative’s ability to tackle the country’s rising obesity problem, and others rightfully highlighting the damaging role this will likely play in encouraging eating disorders.

What is an eating disorder?

Firstly it is important to understand the nature of what eating disorders are in order to shed light on how dangerous the calorie mandate really is for those suffering. An eating disorder is a type of mental illness that revolves around one’s relationship with food, more specifically, using the control of food to cope with difficult feelings and situations. Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, outlines that disordered eating behaviour “can include limiting the amount of food eaten, eating very large quantities of food at once, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. making themselves sick, misusing laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise), or a combination of these behaviours.” (Beat)

Dining out is already an extremely difficult challenge for those suffering or recovering from an eating disorder. It presents what can often feel like a daunting social environment in which it’s easy to feel panicked and out of control. A calorie print mandate therefore serves to heighten the fixation on calorie counting, without actually distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ calories, increasing the probability of a relapse into disordered eating.

Tips for coping

Beat have rolled out an extensive support plan not only for those suffering themselves, but also for loved ones looking to support someone eating out after these changes in the law. We’ve picked out a few key pieces of advice from these suggestions, if you wish to read the full article you can find here.

- Pre-plan: Reduce anxiety on the day by looking at the menu in advance and picking out a few options with your support system (ensuring that you have backup in case your first choice is unavailable). However, it is equally as important that you don't loom over the decision for days. Set boundaries for yourself by trying to limit this planning period to a single conversation with your support network, as over-planning can also build up anxiety.

- Be patient with yourself: This is a big change to an already daunting task, if you're not up to it right away then allow yourself the time to get there at your own pace.

- When you can, take a moment to remind yourself of the benefits that come along with eating out again. It’s an opportunity to enjoy good company, great tasting food that you probably couldn’t cook at home (unless you’ve got Gordon Ramsey level talent), and a chance to be a part of celebrations you would otherwise have to miss out on.

And if you’re looking to support someone on this journey, you can…

- Try offering to have the same meal as them.

- Help distract them from ruminating too much eg. Steering conversation or stepping away from the table with them if they’re becoming overwhelmed.

- Praise them, recognise their progress and don’t let them get too hung up on getting it perfect first time.

Relearning how to navigate the dining out experience is a difficult task, with what may now seem like even more added pressure, so don’t rush this important step. Whatever happens, know that it is your recovery journey and no one else’s, you may favour a more gradual approach but either way you can have pride in knowing that everyday you're in recovery you’re on the right track.