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Calorie-labelled menus: Here’s how people with eating disorders can cope

‘Your brain might be telling you to pick the lowest calorie options but challenge that. And deliberately say yes to recovery’

Charlie Duffield
Thursday 07 April 2022 10:11 BST
Try setting a limit on the amount of time spent looking at the menu - for example, just spend thirty seconds and then pick an option
Try setting a limit on the amount of time spent looking at the menu - for example, just spend thirty seconds and then pick an option (Getty Images)

The government’s new calorie labelling legislation is here, with menus in restaurants and cafes now required by law to feature the number of calories in each dish.

It’s been introduced as an anti-obesity measure, to empower customers to ‘make informed, healthier decisions’ - but eating disorder charities have condemned the move.

Currently, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and the pandemic contributed to more people than ever before needing support for these serious mental illnesses.

UK eating disorder charity Beat, said it was “extremely disappointed” by the mandatory move, citing evidence that it causes anxiety and distress for people affected by eating disorders.

Beat’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, said: “We know from the people we support that including calories on menus can contribute to harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviours worsening, for instance it can increase a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge eating disorder.”

“There is also very limited evidence that the legislation will lead to changed eating habits among the general population,” he added.

For example, a recent British Medical Journal study, which surveyed different restaurant chains in the United States, found that calorie labelling lead to a neglibible decrease of just 4 per cent in the average amount of calories consumed by customers, which diminished entirely during a one year follow-up.

Beat’s clinical advice coordinator, Martha Williams, tellsThe Independent that “counting calories can keep people unwell for longer”.

Williams suggests that people create a plan of action before eating out, if the prospect is making them feel panicked, or out of control.

She said: “One way to take ownership of the experience, is for people to talk to a friend or loved one, about how you’re feeling. Once you’re in the restaurant, be aware of the feelings that come up, as sometimes externalising your thoughts can help.”

Other tips include setting a limit on the amount of time spent looking at the menu - for example, just spend 30 seconds and then pick an option.

Alternatively, ordering the same as a friend or family member can make the decision process easier.

“Think about your motivations for choosing - what is the recovery choice, and what is the eating disorder choice. Remember, that the recovery choice will feel scary, whereas the eating disorder option will feel safe. Remember that calories are not the only measure of nutrition, and just because something is lower in calories, it doesn’t mean it’s nutritionally better. Ultimately, think about what you’d really like to eat,” Williams says.

She adds: “Focus on the social aspect, and the way that eating out enables us to spend quality time with friends and family, socialise and celebrate important life events.”

Similarly, Renee McGregor, a dietician specialising in eating disorders, says that “if we just focus on calories, we don’t learn to eat properly”.

She explains: “If we look at breakfast for example, a croissant has less calories but it is also less satisfying, so you are more likely to go in search of a snack, mid-morning. Whereas eggs and advocado on toast, for example, is full of protein, essential fats and starchy carbohydrates which will keep you going until lunch. This is just an example of how the calories in a meal don’t necessarily make better nutritional choices for long-term health.”

She adds that “humans are biologically hardwired to meet energy balance, which is why diets don’t work.”

McGregor believes the new mandatory calorie labelling “potentially has the impact of taking away the joy of eating and affecting all of us - even those of us who don’t have any issues with food.”

“The human body is complicated and it’s not as simple as calories in versus calories out,”she adds.

For those who feel trepidation about calorie labels, the mental health campaigner, and founder of #DumpTheScales, Hope Virgo, has specific advice.

She tells The Independent: “Try non-chain smaller restaurants. Ask for a menu without calories on it - the restaurant should be able to provide these. Set boundaries beforehand.”

Virgo went on to say: “There is an added fear that because of the calorie labelling, it will normalise a lot of the conversations around numbers, so if you feel able to, set those boundaries first, and if you don’t feel you can, ask someone else to do this for you!

“Remember the eating disorder isn’t about the food, so sitting with the uncertainty of the meal and giving yourself space to talk and vent afterwards is key. Have mantras in your head. Your brain might be telling you to pick the lowest calorie options but challenge that. And deliberately say yes to recovery.

“Eating disorders are not a choice but a serious mental illness. We need to find it within ourselves to not let this cause us to isolate, or spiral backwards. Easier said that done, but challenging the thinking will be so worth it.”

For more tips and advice, Beat has compiled a guide, for dining out with calorie labelling.

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or

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