Why I think calories should be displayed on menus

The government, as I’m sure many of us are aware, has recently announced a new set of plans to reduce the rate of obesity in the United Kingdom. Whilst we know that nothing they ever do will actually have any sort of real effect on this because nobody can make changes for other people: willpower in the only real way forward and – let’s face it – nobody actually buys a chocolate bar because they saw an advert, but because it tastes bloody nice, some of the proposed changes have been causing anxiety amongst those living with eating disorders.

The new law which is causing the most consternation is that restaurants will begin to display calorie counts on their menus. At first, I didn’t like this idea and thought that it would only make going out to eat more difficult. Having thought about it some more, I’ve changed my mind: I don’t actually think that it’s all that bad.

I was tempted, at first, to speak out; to say that this is unfair, that the government is only thinking of the people who struggle with their weight at the other end of the spectrum from those with restrictive eating disorders. This is our automatic reaction because it makes our lives harder; it adds another obstacle to something which is already difficult.

Yes, it adds an extra obstacle to going out for lunch. Yes, it means that we’ll be more aware of the calories we’re eating. Yes, it can be difficult – especially for those of us also affected by a fear, common in anorexia, of breaking rules and guidelines – to go against what the government is recommending.

I thought about all these things for a while and felt angry at the government a bit, but then I remembered that the first rule of recovery is never to acquiesce to the disorder, and I wondered where my fight had gone.

I am not weak. Neither are any of the people living with anorexia who I have ever met. Anyone who has ever made any sort of attempt to recover from an eating disorder is strong and gutsy and brave and has to make an enormous effort to overcome their own thoughts all day every day. In saying that I need special accommodation – that I don’t want to be able to see the calories on a menu – am I not simply saying that I cannot, or will not, allow myself to recover to a point where I can cope with looking at a menu with numbers and not choosing the ‘lowest’ calorie option? Am I not saying that it’s not within my capabilities to go out and ignore the calories on the menu and pick what I actually like, not the nasty vegan option made out of plants and wood chips (NB. this is not an attack on vegans. Some vegan food is nice. Some is made out of plants and wood chips)?

Actually, what I want the world to know – what I want to know about myself – is that I can overcome the fear of choosing something which means I am eating slightly more than I could possibly have done. Actually, I want to be a strong person who doesn’t let anything drag her back down into the horrific world of restriction.

I am not saying that I will automatically be able to do this. I am terrified of seeing the number of calories in something I am eating. I am the master of cooking ready meals without looking at the front, back or sides of the box; I can pour cereal with my head turned the other way. Eating ‘too many’ calories is a real, real fear in my life and something that has dominated my thoughts for many years. However, the way that I am going to get over this is not to lobby the government to stop telling me how many calories are in things but to begin to think about how I can challenge these thoughts and this behaviour. The way I can get over my fear is to recognise the emotion and then do the scary thing anyway.

I might fail the first couple of times: I might arrive at the restaurant and panic and choose the lowest calorie option. I might do it again the second time, and even the third. But then I might have faced the situation enough times to go out and pick something that I really want to eat, regardless of the number next to it on the menu. Then, I will have learnt a new skill. There will be something else I can do that I wasn’t able to do before. I will have conquered another part of my eating disorder.

I would like to add that a huge part of recovery from eating disorders is about accepting that calories are not evil. Re-education on eating disorder units includes discussions about how we need calories to stay alive: we need a certain number each day just to keep our brains and bodies functioning. My inpatient dietician used to tell me that we don’t recover from anything by hiding from the truth. I used to hate her for talking to me about weight and BMI and calories, now I understand that she was empowering me to face a world where these things are discussed and I do not have to hide. She taught me (a skill now admittedly rusty) how to visit restaurants with friends and use menus with calories to plan what I was going to eat. She also taught me that I am capable of going out for burgers and ice cream and enjoying myself. I know people who recover because they learn the number of calories they need to eat and then try to hit that number, day in, day out. The secret is that the number on the menu doesn’t actually mean anything apart from that a meal is giving you more or less energy. Energy that you need.

Also, I would like to add that I’m not sure that showing calories makes any difference, really. I might not be talking about you specifically, but I know that – after a decade of disordered thoughts – I can walk into any restaurant and work out the calories of a meal pretty easily. I am a walking calorie encyclopaedia in many ways: ask me how many calories are in most foods and I can tell you, because I spent years compiling that knowledge to ‘protect’ myself against mistakenly choosing the ‘wrong’ option. If you so wished, I could tell you the difference in calories between two different flavours of the same brand of crisps.

And that knowledge is never just going to go away.

I read people’s thoughts about the proposed changes in restaurants and I wonder how many of the people who are campaigning against it have stopped and thought about how it’s actually going to change their lives. We all know that there are more calories in a pizza than in a lettuce. We are all capable of applying that choice in a restaurant. Being told that on the menu isn’t going to change that experience.

So what I actually want to say to people living with eating disorders is that they are stronger, braver and wiser than they think. If they can overcome what is, arguably, one of the most vicious of mental illnesses, then they can overcome a fear of seeing calories next to foods in restaurants.

This is about the fight and the courage and the determination to learn and to change and to recover.

As an addendum, I have thought long and hard about my viewpoint on this topic, it being so much at odds with that of most people. What I believe is that, instead of spending time attempting to make the world an eating disorder ‘safe’ place, and thus allowing the illness to control us, we spend time fighting to find a cure. To that end, the Charlotte’s Helix project is one which is very close to my heart. There is more information here: https://www.charlotteshelix.net

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