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Putting calories on menus will be disastrous for the 1.2 million people with eating disorders

Eating disorder campaigners have criticised plans to mandate calories on menu | Adobe Stock

4 min read

There is a mental health crisis happening, and putting calories on menus will just exacerbate this.

As part of Boris Johnson’s obesity strategy launched last summer, the idea was created to force restaurants, pubs, and cafes with more than 250 employees to display calories on their menus. Many spoke out about it at the time. The Women and Equalities Committee warned against it in their report on body image last month. But in this week’s Queen’s Speech, this policy was confirmed. The aim is to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis.

I recognise the importance of this; but this is the wrong way to go about it.

There are currently roughly 1.2 million people in the UK who are suffering with an eating disorder – I am one of them. I have anorexia nervosa, and I have worked extremely hard to stop counting calories. Calorie counting can become obsessive extremely quickly, and it is a huge challenge to stop. If there are calories put onto menus, it would affect me and over a million other people like me. Our recovery will be hugely stunted in the name of a policy with dubious effectiveness in tackling obesity, and hugely dangerous to those with eating disorders.

Less than 50 per cent of anorexia patients fully recover, 33 per cent have some improvement, and 20 per cent remain chronically ill. Having calories on menus will have a huge impact

There is a common fear around going out for food for people struggling with an eating disorder. One of the main reasons is the lack of control. Picking food for someone else to cook for you is daunting for us. Eating around other people is also a huge challenge. Both of these factors combined make eating out extremely difficult. Putting calories on menus will make this even more challenging, and will even make it impossible for some. Seeing these numbers will stop us from challenging ourselves and progressing in recovery. After working so hard to avoid counting calories, it is so harmful having this pushed back on us – this will be a huge setback for many.

Seeing the calories displayed on menus any time we go out will be a regular trigger for anyone suffering with an eating disorder. I believe it will harm thousands of people, and can even create unhealthy food relationships to those who aren’t struggling with an eating disorder – something the Women and Equalities Committee also warned about.

I run an online mental health community, where I share my own recovery journey with thousands of others. Within less than 24 hours of the announcement, I received many messages from people showing their concern and worry. This is already having negative consequences on the wellbeing of very vulnerable people.

Less than 50 per cent of anorexia patients fully recover, 33 per cent have some improvement, and 20 per cent remain chronically ill. Having calories on menus will have a huge impact on those with eating disorders. It could keep people trapped, set them back, undo the progress they’ve made, and cause relapses. Obesity needs to be tackled and I can see that, but not at the detriment of our mental health. Eating disorders kill too.

Compared to someone with a “normal” BMI, an underweight patient has a 1.8 times larger risk of dying. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses in adolescents.

Calories are a measurement of energy, not a measurement of worth. They are energy that keeps us alive. They are not numbers that should control us, make us feel badly about ourselves. When children look at a menu, they should be choosing what they want to eat, not looking at the value of their food. Putting these numbers into young people’s minds is going to create a very negative relationship with food, which can easily lead to eating disorders. Our focus on obesity should not be at the detriment of the people we lose every single day from eating disorders.


Tilly Bolton is a mental health campaigner. You can find her on Instagram at tillys.brain.



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