‘Really makes me stressed’: Brits ‘struggle’ with calories on menus as new law takes hold

Simon Rimmer says that going to restaurants is ‘fantastic’

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The Government proposed the new calorie-labelling regulation in May last year as part of its wider plan to tackle the UK’s obesity epidemic. By listing calories on menus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s aim is to help people make healthier choices. Although some agree the rule will be beneficial to many, others think it will be detrimental to people’s mental health – leading to obsessive calorie counting and disordered eating. Express.co.uk spoke to those who strongly oppose the new law.

Sam Thomas, 36, is a freelance writer from Brighton and believes the new rule is “damaging”.

He explained: “Having been in recovery from bulimia for nearly 15 years and worked in the charity sector supporting men with eating disorders for 10, I know firsthand how damaging this new legislation is. In the Government’s attempts to tackle obesity, they are sidelining those with eating disorders, which is extremely dangerous.

“What the Government should encourage is restaurants to have the option to calorie free menus – it’s common sense. Instead it’s reinforced a barrier for those with eating disorders going to restaurants, including those who are many years into recovery.”

Anna Bartter, a mother of two from southern England, agreed. She said: “I feel really strongly that there should be some menus available in every restaurant without the calories marked.

“I really struggle with seeing calories. As someone who has suffered with disordered eating since I was 14, I find it very hard to eat out now.

“I went to Pizza Express with my daughter this week and I know that knowing the calories affected not only my choice of what I was eating there, but also my food choices for the whole of the rest of that day. I appreciate the obesity crisis, but given that restaurant meals are only supposed to be an occasional ‘treat’, how can this really make a long-term difference?”

Lucy Arnold’s experience of eating out at a restaurant has also been impacted by the new rule.

The 31-year-old from Sheffield is a former personal trainer and founder of activewear brand Lucy Locket Loves. She told Express.co.uk: “It really makes me feel stressed as I know how obsessed I used to be with calories in and calories out.

“I’m going out for dinner tonight and I’ve already started looking at the menu and then planning all my meals around it and calorie intake, when I should be thinking how excited I am to finally go to a show I booked in 2019 and spend time with two people I love and haven’t spent enough time with lately.”

Hope Virgo, a mental health activist and founder of the campaign Dump the Scales – which calls for adequate GP training around eating disorders – is strongly against the new calorie-labelling law. So much so that she, and other members of the group Hearts Minds and Genes Coalition for Eating Disorders, co-signed a letter to the Government, asking Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid to scrap the rule.

The letter demanded that the Government “makes a commitment that the evaluation of the new legislation to label restaurants with calories on will happen in the first year, with a commitment that members from the eating disorder community and experts will be involved in this review”.

It also asked the Cabinet to “make it mandatory for every single restaurant that has to have mandatory calorie labelling will also have a no-calorie menu choice for those who wish to request this”, and “to remove the labelling of calories on children’s menus in all restaurants”.

The letter highlighted that in 2019, 16 percent of the UK adult population screened positive for a possible eating disorder.

An estimated 1.25 million people in Britain have an eating disorder, with 25 percent of those affected being male, according to research published by the eating disorder charity Beat.

Hope, who chairs the Hearts Minds and Genes Coalition, said: “I honestly still can’t quite believe that this has happened. For so many people affected by eating disorders, restaurants will become an even more toxic and fearful place.

“It will normalise conversations around food and exercise. Over the pandemic we have seen a huge increase in eating disorders, with services completely overrun.

“Do we really want future generations to grow up basing their food decisions on numbers? Since the legislation came into force, I have been inundated by messages from people who have so much fear – not just for themselves, but for those around them too.”

Nutrition counsellor and trainee psychotherapist Pixie Turner has also had people turn to her with serious concerns about the new law.

She said on Instagram in early April: “It’s only been a week and I’ve already had so many heartbreaking conversations with clients for whom it has increased their anxiety around ordering food and put them off going out to eat with friends.”

Pixie added that “mandating calories on menus enables the Government to place their focus on individual responsibility instead of the socio-economic factors that will actually make a significant difference in public health”.

Rhiannon Lambert, nutritionist, best-selling author of The Science of Nutrition, and podcast host of Food for Thought, agreed that there are other ways to tackle obesity in Britain.

She said: “For many people, especially for those who already have an eating disorder or disordered eating, the introduction of calories to menus may cause more harm than good and the cases of reported eating disorders have risen, especially throughout the pandemic.

“Rather than being dictated by calories, what we all need to be aware of is how to eat healthily, for life, not just for weight loss.

“The lower calorie option is not always the healthier one. Calories may be problematic as they are determined by an outdated calculation that does not consider a person’s age, their size, or their physical activity level, and do not determine happiness or health and food.”

The nutritionist went on to highlight that “these numbers can be up to 30 percent inaccurate”.

She explained: “You may not absorb the full amount of energy or nutrients the label on food packaging or on menus says you will. This is due to individual differences such as your gut health and intestine length, or how much of the nutrients you absorb.”

According to Rhiannon, what is needed are “Government funded self-help or group-help nutrition education programmes and online planning tools, which provide accessible information for those who need it”.

“I wish everyone had access to a psychologist and registered nutritionist on the NHS,” she added.

For those looking for advice on how to navigate and cope with the new legislation while eating out, Rhiannon advised: “Perhaps ask the people you are with to read out the choices that are available to you, or you could ask the waiting staff if there is a menu that does not show the calories.

“When in a disordered relationship with food it may be difficult to see past the numbers, however, with the right support and practice with a therapist it can be possible.”

Pixie shared her tips too, recommending that diners “choose smaller non-chain restaurants to eat in” and “let anyone you’re eating with know they have the option of asking for a non-calorie menu too”.

She added in an Instagram post: “Set boundaries with whoever you’re with. Be kind but firm in telling them you want no mention of calories during your meal.

“Ask the person you’re with to take a picture of the menu on their phone, black out the calorie counts, and send it to you.

“If you’re really stuck, any meals deemed as ‘specials’, which are not on the menu for more than 30 days, do not have to show the calorie count.”

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