Trigger alert: eating disorders.
There was a time when I couldn’t pass an apple without saying how many calories it had in my head. In fact, this relentless habit covered most foods, from a whole can of coke to a roast chicken, and everything in between. Much of my brain power was consumed daily by a running total of everything that passed and did not pass through my lips.
It took me almost 10 years to get over this routine. Being able to listen to a podcast while preparing breakfast (I needed silence to do the calorie balance) or try a new recipe without wondering what its nutritional value was. It has been – like many others – a long, long road, but one that has left me less of a slave to that little number on the back of a box or packet. I had gotten to the point where I had accepted that while I might never be completely free of it all the time, it didn’t need to plague my waking every moment.
But from today (April 1) it becomes a legal requirement in the UK for pubs, restaurants and cafes in England with more than 250 staff to label their menus with calories. It’s an attempt to force restaurants to make healthier, lower-calorie meals, and according to a new study, it’s working. But not without collateral damage. I, and the 1.25 million others who have or have had an eating disorder or disordered eating tendencies, will suffer the most.
“While it’s very important not to demonize the diet (many people with diabetes, for example, will probably appreciate the transparency of their calorie content), as an eating disorder professional, that comes down to fight fire with fire,” says Ruth Micallef, a subspecialty counselor in eating disorders. “To fully understand why this is so detrimental, we must first recognize that eating disorders (including those that can promote weight gain like binge eating and bulimia nervosa) are not simply a” personal defect”; they are a way of coping with very real unprocessed trauma. That’s why the foundation of recovery has nothing to do with calories, and everything to do with having a safe space to process and move forward after trauma.
“Reducing our obesity crisis in the UK to mere calories on a menu minimizes the reality of eating disorders,” Ruth continues. “It assumes that people are just lazy, greedy and unmotivated, relying on harmful stereotypes that keep people from getting the support they really need due to feelings of shame. Those who overeat in their feeding will be even more shamed and blamed for their trauma, and those who restrict will be further encouraged to use their harmful coping mode.
For Ruth, and other experts like her, there is a bigger question here: where is the real trauma support behind all the eating disorders? Where is the real nutrition and diet education? “We see calories on menus, but funding for mental health services is completely demolished in both the public and charitable sectors,” Ruth says.
“The reality is that the culture of a toxic diet can also instill feelings of shame and guilt in those without an eating disorder. By encouraging people to live by the numbers on a menu , rather than intuitively, we will inevitably encourage more people to eat disorderly,” she explains.