Calorie labelling concerns surrounding the impact on eating disorders 

Last month, the UK government announced new legislation related to calorie labelling in the out of the home sector.

The move requires hospitality businesses (such as restaurants, cafes and takeaway) will be required to display calorie labelling information on menus and food labels from April 2022. 

The legislation forms part of the government’s strategy to take obesity. It is aimed to prompt people to make more informed and healthier choices when eating out, as well as to encourage businesses to provide lower-calorie options for customers. 

However, the introduction of the initiative has led to serious concerns surrounding those struggling from or vulnerable to eating disorders and other mental health conditions. 

Beat, the UK’s charity for eating disorders, has argued that the new legislation will negatively impact those.

Beat’s Chief Executive Andrew Radford said:

“Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.

“Although we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive, while the number of calories consumed is not a reliable indicator of health. 

“Public health campaigns need to consider people’s mental health as well as their physical health. They must move away from obesity-shaming to emphasising healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people.”

Tegan Rix, Senior Occupational Therapist at Nightingale Hospital, contributes her thoughts on the new legislation below. 

“I am disappointed about the government’s mandatory implementation requiring calorie information to be displayed on menus of large businesses and the cosmic impact this will have on those suffering from eating disorders and disordered eating. I have already seen the ripple effect of this damaging law.

As part of this new law, the government views caloric displays to be a building block to encourage people to make healthier choices and aid what they call the “obesity crisis”. Calories are units of energy. We cannot make “healthier choices” based purely on units of energy alone, as foods which are lower in calories, are not necessarily more healthy and in no way superior to higher caloric foods. The government is hoping to target the “obesity crisis” by displaying caloric information but fails to fully understand or take into consideration that obesity is multi-dimensional and will not be resolved with this new measure.

I have been following the public response to the new law implemented on the 6th of April. I felt deeply concerned by a comment made by a well-known British medical doctor, who is quoted as saying: “People with the most serious eating disorders, anorexia, don’t go to restaurants and they know exactly how many calories are in everything. So I don’t think this will be a problem.”

Part of my role in the eating disorders unit at Nightingale Hospital is taking patients (including those with anorexia) to restaurants and cafes up to three times a week as part of the treatment programme in recovery. 

All people eat out, it is a part of everyday life. As part of this experiential practice, we encourage our patients to read a menu and learn to make a choice not based on calorie information, but instead based on what they feel like or what they desire. For someone who may already be preoccupied with numbers, caloric information displayed on menus re-enforce the unhelpful belief that we should be making decisions on what to eat based on numbers. Additionally, it increases anxiety, and feelings of guilt and confuses decision-making. We would like for all people to enjoy a meal and not have the occasion provoke anxiety. Food is just food, what you consume is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. 

Some of my fondest and most memorable moments in life have been around a meal. As occupational beings, we use food and eating out as means of social engagement, celebration, fostering friendships, curiosity and fun. Food should remain like that, food. I also struggle to believe that the caloric information displayed on menus will be scientifically accurate.”

Further resources and support 

If you or someone you care about might be struggling in response to this new legislation, support is available. 

Tegan highlighted that occupational therapy can be a powerful support for someone struggling to navigate this new development.

“As an occupational therapist, it is part of my practice to support individuals by equipping them with knowledge, skills and practical training on how to navigate recovery or their difficult relationship with food and the new law.

My sessions will involve navigating the impact of the new law on their beliefs about food, nutrition and calories combined with practical skills training and experiential opportunities to go out and practice. I think it’s important to note that this support is not specific to those suffering from or in recovery from anorexia, but to all eating disorders. This also includes individuals who are not formally diagnosed but struggle in their relationship with food,” explained Tegan. 

  • Contact us about occupational therapy from Nightingale Hospital
  • Beat UK website contains a vast array of free support and resources

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