Warning: this article contains the topic of eating disorders.
Over the decade that’s passed, my memories have become hazy, but one day stands out in my mind as a low point. I had reluctantly said yes to joining my family for a pub lunch, something that brought me huge anxiety because - put simply - I wasn’t eating.
In the restaurant, I scanned the menu with panic as everyone else ordered plates of food, as though it was nothing, easy. Despite willing myself to give the name of a dish to the waiter, I found I couldn’t do it. When a bowl of tortilla chips were passed around the table, I couldn’t take any. Instead, spilling over with shame and sadness and hunger, I sat in my mum’s car and cried as I waited for my family to finish their food.
Would things have been worse if that menu had contained calories? In all honesty, I don’t think it could have got much worse for me, then. I was in a prolonged period of severe food restriction that had begun a couple of years before, and it was breaking me. I knew the calories for most foods off by heart anyway, and besides, I was never going to order anything - not really - when the thought of eating made my head spin. What I can say with confidence, however, is that the calorie counts staring back at me from the page wouldn’t have helped in quieting the voice in my head telling me that food was my enemy.
Now, more than 10 years on, I’m 27. It took around three years following that meal for me to overcome my issues with food restriction, bingeing and purging, but since my early twenties I have enjoyed a healthy relationship with food - and it's something I’m eternally grateful for. According to the UK’s leading eating disorder charity Beat, only 46% of anorexia patients fully recover, while that number is lower at 45% for bulimia patients. Beat estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and these saddening figures are why I’m so concerned about the Government’s newly-announced plans to force calorie counts onto menus at restaurants, cafes and pubs if the businesses who own them have more than 250 employees.
The new plans were revealed in the recent Queen’s Speech and will be “focusing on food” rather than our glasses of wine and pints of beer. Given the turbulent time the hospitality sector is still facing after so long in shutdown, it’s hit back against the inconvenience of ‘red tape’ this change means. But what about people like me, who are recovered from disordered eating and eating disorders, but still find calorie-counting triggering? And what about those estimated 1.25 million who are experiencing these illnesses now, going out to socialise with their loved ones for the first time in a long time and being met with a menu that exacerbates their fears about eating?
Beat agrees with my feelings on the new rules, with the charity saying it is “extremely disappointed that the Govt has continued with these plans, despite clear evidence it is ineffective and dangerous to people affected by eating disorders.”
The pandemic, too, has been particularly hard for people affected by disordered eating. In June 2020, a few months into the first lockdown, Beat reported a 73% surge in people accessing its services. The isolation, stress and uncertainty has been, in some cases, a perfect storm for eating disorders to occur or recur. While I don’t believe there will ever be a good time to force everyone to see calories in front of them when they go out to eat, now feels like a particularly dangerous time to start implementing that change.
I feel so lucky that during lockdown, the trauma we were all experiencing didn’t trigger any of my old disordered eating habits to return. In our many months at home, my boyfriend and I looked forward to our weekend takeaways with big, hearty portions (a tradition we’re still keeping up now) and on 17 May, when indoor restaurants open up, we’re going out for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. Not once at that meal will I concern myself with the calories of the food I consume. I’ll be grateful to be alive, healthy, happy and out of the house experiencing life with someone I love, in a way that I couldn’t all those years ago, when I was in the clutches of disordered eating, counting calories with the view that nothing else mattered.
The Government’s anti-obesity strategy, which this calorie-counting change is a part of, is apparently about making the country healthier. But I know which version of myself is healthier - and it isn’t the teenager who couldn’t eat a meal with her family.
With growing pressure on the Government from body positivity and mental health advocates to change its anti-obesity strategy, including recent calls to scrap BMI because of the harm it causes, I hope those in power will listen to people like me when we say, our society doesn’t need endless metrics and restrictions around food and weight. Instead we need sensitive, nuanced, national conversation around how we can all be our healthiest self - whatever that looks like for each of us.
You can find help and support related to eating disorders at Beat’s website or by calling the Beat helpline on 0808 801 0677.
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